A day after a federal judge dismissed Uptown Tent City Organizers’ lawsuit against the City of Chicago, the homeless organization’s attorneys are vowing to continue a court battle for the right of those who have been displaced by authorities to camp out in the streets.
The dispute between Uptown’s homeless residents and the city stretches back years. A mass sweep of homeless people living under the Lake Shore Drive viaducts in the neighborhood occurred ahead of a 2015 Mumford & Sons concert at Montrose Beach. This led a few dozen who’d been moved to camp out around Stewart Elementary School, which had been shuttered as part of the 2013 wave of school closures. The homeless were soon removed from this land, too, when in September 2016 the city fenced in the school in preparation for the building’s redevelopment into luxury housing.
After that many tent dwellers came back to the Lake Shore Drive viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence Avenues. But in 2017 the city began construction at the viaducts, and homeless residents were once again displaced. Many lost possessions as city garbage trucks collected their belongings to clear the sidewalks.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, Uptown Tent City Organizers sought permits on the homeless people’s behalf that would allow them to resume camping on the the land around Stewart school temporarily, until the viaduct construction was completed. After the city denied these permits and an administrative court sided with the city, the group sued the city in state court, asking a Cook County circuit court judge to review the decision.
The matter ended up before a federal judge in June 2017, and there the Tent City Organizers, represented by the Uptown People’s Law Center, expanded their case into a full constitutional complaint. UPLC claimed that the city was violating the homeless people’s First Amendment rights by not allowing them to assemble in their tents and use their tents as symbols of protest of the city’s housing policies; their Fourth Amendment rights by seizing and discarding their property; their Fifth Amendment rights because the homeless people didn’t receive a hearing before having their property confiscated; and their Eighth Amendment rights by effectively criminalizing homelessness. The city’s actions were “cruel,” Alan Mills of UPLC explains, and they amounted to “punishing someone for being homeless.”
On Wednesday, circuit court judge Sidney Schenkier dismissed the suit. In a 27-page ruling, he wrote that the First Amendment claims didn’t stick because the homeless people’s tents and their act of camping didn’t amount to expression. “We find unpersuasive plaintiffs’ attempt to compare their conduct to sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, and to overnight encampments that took place on public lands during the ‘Occupy movement,'” Schenkier wrote, stressing that a homeless encampment lacks “a singularity expressive purpose to protest government policies.”
Schenkier decided that the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendment claims couldn’t be brought because Uptown Tent City Organizers’ lead plaintiff, Andy Thayer, isn’t himself homeless. This leaves open the possibility of bringing these claims against the city again with a homeless person as a plaintiff.
Mills wouldn’t say whether this would be UPLC’s next move, but he noted that as the city continues to remove homeless encampments from various locations—including from Lower Wacker Drive just this week—”there are plenty of potential individual plaintiffs.”
Schenkier also ruled that the Uptown Tent City Organizers are free to continue pursuing their challenge of the city’s permit denial in state court. Mills said that resurrecting their case there would only take a motion and that the setback in federal court is “definitely not the end of the story.”
In response to Schenkier’s ruling, Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, issued a short statement: “We believe that this ruling is consistent with the law, and the City of Chicago remains committed to a compassionate and consistent approach to providing homeless services while respecting the rights of this vulnerable population.”
But Mills isn’t buying this expression of concern for the homeless. “The city seems to believe that the answer to homelessness is to hide it rather than to house people,” he says. “Where do they expect these folks to go? That’s the fundamental question the city has never answered.”