Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Chicago’s Homeless Form A Union

Juan Carlos Aviles, union of Chicago homeless
Juan Carlos Aviles said police and Streets and Sanitation employees treated him and other residents of a tent encampment roughly in late June. Since seeking support from groups that included the Chicago Union of the Homeless, he said that has changed. Odette Yousef / WBEZ News
Juan Carlos Aviles, union of Chicago homeless
Juan Carlos Aviles said police and Streets and Sanitation employees treated him and other residents of a tent encampment roughly in late June. Since seeking support from groups that included the Chicago Union of the Homeless, he said that has changed. Odette Yousef / WBEZ News

Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Chicago’s Homeless Form A Union

Juan Carlos Aviles watched nervously on a Friday morning in early July as city employees moved through Fireman’s Park, a small area north of Logan Square where he sleeps. His concern stemmed from a distressing experience he and others who live in the park had two weeks earlier.

Aviles said police and Streets and Sanitation workers had showed up unexpectedly on a Saturday morning.

“They took our tents down when it was raining,” Aviles said. “They threatened us, you know, to remove everything — throw everything away from us.”

But this time, Aviles said it was different. As the city workers emptied trash cans in the park, they avoided bags containing the belongings Aviles and other encampment residents had packed and stacked neatly on benches. Despite the small size of the encampment — just four tents — this cleaning had attracted the presence of many watchful eyes. Among them were those of a relatively new group in Chicago — the Chicago Union of the Homeless.

“Our role as a union really starts with building relationships and empowering people to take this fight on for themselves and say you don’t have to accept this,” said Adam Gottlieb, an organizer who played a driving role in establishing the group. Gottlieb believes the city changed its approach after Aviles and others spoke up for themselves. The union is part of a growing movement among the homeless here to organize.

“We’re trying to establish organic leadership in every encampment … get people sharing resources, and ultimately take on these bigger battles with more unity, recognizing that … it starts with the people who are the most disenfranchised,” Gottleib said.

As many as 60,000 households in Illinois are behind on rent and could face eviction, according to the state’s Department of Human Services. Despite federally-funded programs to keep people in their homes during the pandemic, many, like Aviles, have still become homeless. As localities look ahead to an eventual lifting of the eviction moratorium, many fear the number of unhoused people could double, or even triple. Members of the union believe they bring a unique voice to the discussions around how to handle the looming crisis.

“We know where these people are at,” said Ricardo Vera, a leader in the union who stays in an encampment at South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road near Interstate 90/94. “We are a force to be reckoned with. We’ve had our actions at City Hall, we’ve had our actions at the Thompson Center. We’ve had our actions at the Daley Center. And we protest.”

Chief among the union’s demands is an increase of affordable housing. It has been vocal in opposing the development of an apartment complex in the parking lot of Weiss Hospital in Uptown. The union contends that the plan would bring high-end housing into an area where streets are lined with tents of those who are unable to access affordable units.

But since its founding in October, the group has also tended to the reality of what Chicagoans needed to survive the winter — and an oncoming second wave of COVID-19 — without housing. Gottlieb said the union raised tens of thousands of dollars online from personal donations through GoFundMe and Venmo, which it used to buy tents and propane tanks to keep people warm. On the coldest winter nights, the union paid for hotel rooms. It also purchased phones to keep members connected as individuals sheltered in place during the pandemic.

But for Tamekia James, known to her friends as “Bonnie,” the union has done much more than support her physical needs.

“It got me to be able to fight for myself and for other people that don’t have a voice,” said James, who is president of the union. James said she became homeless when she left an abusive relationship. Through establishing and growing the union, James said she’s learned that being unhoused does not mean she is without skills or worth. In passing that lesson along to others in the organization, James said she has found a purpose.

“Keep going. Fight for yourself. This stuff is hard,” she said. “Let me help you learn how to do it for yourself, so you can be able to help somebody else.”

The union was established as the local chapter of the National Union of the Homeless, but under circumstances that none would disclose, the chapter has split off. Nonetheless, organizers with the Chicago group say they are aware that they’re continuing a history. In the late 1980s, amid rising homelessness and vacancies in public housing buildings, unhoused Chicagoans established the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless.

Joseph Peery, union of Chicago homeless
Joseph Peery helped organize the Chicago-Gary Union of the Homeless in the 1980s. The group broke into, and lived in, vacant public housing units to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. Odette Yousef / WBEZ News
“They were doing mass evictions, throwing people out on the street. [The] Chicago Housing Authority. They were doing that,” said Joseph Peery, who was an organizer with the earlier union. “So we started going to Henry Horner [Homes], to Cabrini[-Green], to wherever, and we would find vacant units, find homeless families, and move them in. [We would] fix the place up, move them in and call the news media to come down and cover it.”

Peery said the tactic worked. The union succeeded in publicizing the fact that the city had resources available, in the form of vacant housing units, to mitigate homelessness. Today, he sees similarities in how the city has received billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid. He said it presents a rare opportunity to direct substantial resources to a problem that otherwise will almost certainly grow.

“So, now it’s time to organize,” he said.

Odette Yousef is a reporter with WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.