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Tents of homeless people are pitched on the embankment above the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago as numerous cars zoom by.

This homeless encampment near 1100 S. Desplaines St. will be closed and fenced off permanently next Wednesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Ahead of DNC, city officials to close, cordon off one of Chicago's largest, most visible homeless camps

Federal officials haven’t asked that the “tent city” next to the Dan Ryan Expressway be cleared, but a top mayoral aide says she doesn’t want to wait and then scramble.

As Chicago rolls out the red carpet for the Democratic National Convention next month, one of the city’s largest and most visible encampments for people without permanent homes is about to be shut down and fenced off for good.

The “tent city” sandwiched for years between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the 1100 block of South Desplaines Street will be cleared out Wednesday and permanently cordoned off, Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Nearly all of the 22 people who have been living there in a few dozen blue and orange tents have agreed to move to a city-operated shelter of 60 beds at 100 E. Chestnut St., in the former Tremont Hotel. This year’s inaugural summer shelter arrangement has been funded through Aug. 31, Knazze said. That’s a little more than a week after the end of the convention, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of Democratic leaders and supporters as well as protesters.

Chicago and other political convention cities have a long history of moving homeless people away from prominent areas in sight of visiting conventioneers and news cameras. Ahead of the 1996 DNC, Mayor Richard M. Daley cleared out the last of “Skid Row” between the Loop and the site of the convention, the United Center.

Knazze said this isn’t that kind of sweep — that city officials are moving the encampment’s residents because they figured federal authorities could require them to do so for security reasons, and she didn’t want people getting resettled in a scramble.

Brandie Knazze speaks at a podium decorated with the City of Chicago seal, with the audience blurred in the foreground.

Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze, shown speaking at City Hall in January, told the Chicago Sun-Times that “my plan is to make sure that we are thoughtful, that we are doing it in a trauma-informed way and that it’s not disruptive.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

“We do know that [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security could come and ask, and that thoroughfare along Roosevelt Road is a place that we anticipate individuals who are staying at McCormick Place will be traveling to the United Center ... my plan is to make sure that we are thoughtful, that we are doing it in a trauma-informed way and that it’s not disruptive,” Knazze said in a recent interview.

Secret Service spokesman Joseph Biesk said security maps won’t be finalized until the end of the month. But preliminary maps that show potential secure zones around McCormick Place and the United Center don’t include the Desplaines encampment.

As the national spotlight arrives in Chicago, more people are experiencing homelessness, with 18,836 unhoused people in 2024, a jump from 6,139 in 2023, according to the city’s annual point in time count. In an annual report on homelessness, city officials attributed the increase to newly arrived immigrants seeking shelter.

But that’s not who has lived in the Desplaines encampment, according to city officials, who say they’ve moved 18 camp residents to the former Gold Coast hotel and two more to a different shelter.

Chris, who did not want to be identified by his full name, says he’s lived at the encampment off of Desplaines Street for about two years after losing his job as a truck driver. Chris said he and others were told in late June they would receive help finding permanent housing. He says he’s waited a long time for help and remains skeptical.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

A 57-year-old fellow resident who also declined to provide his name says it looks like the city is cleaning up ahead of its big party.

“They just want us to get out of here,” said the man, adding that he didn’t think President Joe Biden had done enough to help people like him struggling to find stable housing.

Rumors swirled in the encampment as some believed the city would provide them with hotel rooms for a month while others thought it could lead to a housing choice voucher.

A red and white tent next to a tree and a lot of debris is pictured at a homeless encampment that overlooks the Dan Ryan Expressway.

This homeless encampment at 1100 S. Desplaines St. overlooks the Dan Ryan Expressway just north of Roosevelt Avenue. It had about 30 tents as of late June, weeks before the city’s July 17 deadline to shut it down.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Knazze said the new summer shelter program was also offered to residents in encampments near 19th Place and Canalport Avenue, under the Ryan Expressway, and between Bryn Mawr and Foster Avenues near the North Shore Channel. However, those locations won’t be fenced off, she said — and none of the moves stem from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits officials to enforce bans on people sleeping outside.

“This work is being done as part of our regular outreach efforts and strategy to support residents that are unhoused living in encampments,” said Andrea Chatman, Knazze’s deputy. “These residents have been targeted for these summer initiatives, not primarily because of DNC, but because … there are some health or safety issues happening in those locations.”

The goal is to make sure “that we are connecting folks with safe and supportive shelter and then ultimately, long term sustainable housing,” Chatman said.

Before funding runs out for the Gold Coast shelter — and DFSS wouldn’t say how much the summer program costs — the department will host two events to help individuals at the shelter secure permanent housing. The department’s “rapid rehousing” program also speeds up the timeline to get people into homes, and provides up to two years of rental assistance and other supportive services, Knazze said.

But if a person staying at the hotel doesn’t find housing by Aug. 31, the city will move them to a different shelter space, Knazze said.

A person handles their belongings, stored in numerous black trash bags and a yellow container, in front of the former Tremont Hotel that's now a temporary homeless shelter, as security guards watch from underneath the awning of the building's entrance.

Security guards keep watch Wednesday as a person removes their belongings from the former Tremont Hotel at 100 E. Chestnut St., which the city converted to a temporary homeless shelter in the Gold Coast.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“We’re really trying to be thoughtful in how we engage individuals,” Knazze said. “We’ve talked about offering people in advance shelter and housing, and we will continue to do that.”

In Milwaukee, Capuchin Community Services is ramping up its offerings to unhoused people during the Republican National Convention next week, in anticipation that many wouldn’t be able to access where they typically sleep or spend the day because of the event’s security perimeter, said the ministry’s director Rev. Mike Bertram.

“When events like this happen in some other cities, what happens to the poor?” Bertram said. “The city very often rounds all the poor up and basically deports them to some far out area where they receive no services, just to simply get the people out of sight. And we said, you know, that’s not treating people humanely or with any amount of dignity, and we need to do better for our people.”

The organization, part of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, will continue to run its free evening meal program that borders the RNC’s security perimeter, Bertram said. They are also opening their overnight shelter — which typically only operates during the winter months — during the convention, and are working with county officials to open a daytime cooling center.

Back on Desplaines Street, Chris said he was told about the move in June. But his main priority has been finding a job.

“I’m trying to make it (through) the day,” he said.

A homeless encampment sits high on an embankment of the Dan Ryan Expressway as heavy traffic goes by.

The homeless encampment at 1100 S. Desplaines St. next to the Dan Ryan expressway had been home to 22 residents, city officials say.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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