Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed to do everything she can to remove unhoused people at O’Hare Airport, calling it a safety issue, after the situation drew national attention — and criticism.
Advocates and workers say the number of unhoused people that sleep or take refuge at the airport has increased substantially this year.
In remarks to reporters Thursday, the mayor acknowledged the seriousness of the problem — which she said was different than encampments beneath viaducts, in parks and elsewhere on city streets — even as she argued that the conservative media had blown the issue out of proportion.
“We have taken and will continue to take the steps that are necessary to move people out of the airports,” she said. “The airports are a very different place than on the street under an underpass.”
As a secure location, O’Hare does not allow members of the public to be at the airport unless they are flying in or out or work there. Chicago police and the city Department of Aviation have said “we absolutely, fundamentally cannot have people sleeping in our airports who are homeless. That is unacceptable,” the mayor said. “We’re gonna continue within the bounds of the law to do what is necessary to provide those folks with support —but elsewhere. They can’t be in our airports.”
Though the number of people seeking shelter at O’Hare in the winter months always increases, the increase has been higher recently, said Jessica Dubuar, Haymarket Center’s director of specialty programs and services
Haymarket Center’s O’Hare Outreach program, which connects those experiencing homelessness and seeking shelter at the airport with resources, served 618 unhoused people at the airport in 2022 — up 58% from 2021, when it served 431. Haymarket had 14,000 interactions with the unhoused in 2022, which is up significantly from 2018, when 8,132 interactions were recorded with 392 people.
Stephan Koruba, a nurse-practitioner at the Night Ministry, said he and another nurse-practitioner were at O’Hare for three hours Sunday, providing medical care at the request of Haymarket, and found far more people camping out there than before.
“It was way, way busier, three times what we saw before,” he said. “We were seeing people we knew from all over the city. The attractions are obvious — a roof over your head, relatively warm, restrooms.”
Koruba and his colleague saw 45 homeless people and treated 14 for wounds, parasites and substance abuse.
Koruba said he asked his clients why there were now more people living at O’Hare.
“They said, ‘They’re letting us back in,’” he said. “I don’t know if word got out that it’s a good place to be.”
More police dispatched
But a law enforcement source said that starting this week, additional police manpower has been dedicated to offering services to homeless people — and removing those who don’t accept the help. Though Lightfoot made a point of highlighting the issue on Thursday, the source — who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly — said there was no directive from City Hall to more aggressively remove people from O’Hare.
However, an increased police presence could be seen at the airport Wednesday and Thursday, including a cadre of officers stationed at the O’Hare Blue Line stop inside the airport. On Wednesday evening, officers could be seen asking people coming into the airport to show their airline tickets or work IDs. Only a handful of people experiencing homelessness were seen sitting on benches at the terminals.
The law enforcement source said some of the unhoused people have displayed “erratic and confrontational behavior.” That’s raised safety concerns for both passengers and employees, including maintenance workers and parking lot attendants who have recently been attacked.
Officers are helping the unhoused population get help from service providers and even driving them to hospitals or shelters. Those who don’t accept the support are being brought to the CTA, according to the source.
The recent effort has “been making numbers more manageable,” the source said.
But Haymarket’s Dubuar — and Lightfoot — strongly disputed that there were any large-scale encampments at the airport and said the situation was nothing like what has been portrayed by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the Daily Mirror and the New York Post, which ran a story under the headline, “Dystopian Homeless Encampments Overtake Chicago’s Airports.”
Lightfoot dismissed the broadsides, noting many of the social media photos used in the reports were “quite old.”
“They’re never gonna portray our city in a favorable light,” she said.