After what some say was an unprecedented pattern of violence against people experiencing homelessness in Chicago last year, activists are calling on the city to better investigate these crimes and to do more for the victims.
Homeless encampments in Avondale burned to the ground repeatedly last year, and residents told police they believed their belongings were intentionally torched; but fire and police officials blamed the fires on encampment residents themselves.
Law enforcement’s reaction shows an unwillingness by the city to take crimes against unhoused people seriously and is part of a larger pattern of scapegoating unhoused people for violence inflicted against them, says Diane O’Connell, a community lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“I’ve seen this time and again, that there seems to be a tendency to blame catastrophes on the victims when those people are homeless,” she says.
In July 2020, fires occurred nearly simultaneously at encampments at Belmont and Kedzie, Belmont and Kimball, and Diversey and California, according to police reports. Another Belmont-Kedzie encampment burned in October, and police reports from the July and October fires say encampment residents, many of whom lost all of their belongings, believed the fires were an act of arson.
The Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigations did not look into the July fires, though incident reports were filed. An investigative report about the October fire, which originated on a mattress, blamed the blaze on an open flame and “available combustibles.” The police report about the October fire similarly blamed “careless smoking.”
The July police report states the case is suspended. According to the October police report, the case was deemed non-criminal and closed.
But fires are just one part of violence facing people experiencing homelessness in the city, O’Connell says. And it’s nothing new.
In 2014, a homeless man was beaten to death in a Logan Square alley, and police say the investigation is still open; in 2016, three men were arrested when police found them stabbing and robbing a homeless man in the South Loop; in 2018, a retired Chicago police sergeant pled guilty to intentionally burning and destroying a Naperville unhoused man’s tent and belongings.
And late last year, Chicago police also charged a man with brutally stabbing four homeless people, one fatally, in separate attacks between July and August last year. According to online court records, he’s currently being held without bail.
But the spate of attacks last year marked what O’Connell says was the most violence she’s seen perpetrated against the city’s homeless community in such a short period of time. Because the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless keeps track of such attacks, she says the group is keenly aware of the level of violence facing the community.
“It was kind of a season of extremist violence against homeless people,” she says.
CPD, however, could not confirm whether it specifically tracks violence perpetrated against people experiencing homelessness.
According to the city’s most recent point-in-time report, which aims to count the number of unhoused people in the city, there were 5,390 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago as of late January 2020, a two percent increase from the year before. The report also states that Black people account for roughly 77 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the city, even though only one-third of the city’s population is Black.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says the city’s count is grossly deflated, however, because federal housing authorities only recognize people as unhoused if they live in a shelter or on the street, and not those temporarily living with others. According to CHC, based on the most recent U.S. Census data available, roughly 76,998 people actually experienced homelessness in Chicago throughout 2018.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has also documented scores of deadly and non-deadly attacks against homeless people across the nation over the past 18 years, and said that the stigmas associated with being homeless and challenges people face in reporting crimes make it nearly impossible to know the true scope of this type of violence.
In a December 2018 report about anti-homeless violence, NCH said it found nearly 1,800 examples of attacks against homeless people across the country over an 18-year period.
“Because the homeless community is treated so poorly in our society, many attacks go unreported, and people who are homeless are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the general population,” NCH said the report. “Therefore, we do not know the full scope of these abuses. The issue of anti-homeless violence highlights the structural and economic violence served to those who have housing insecurity.”
O’Connell says that the unhoused population in Avondale has faced mistreatment in the past—sometimes even from city officials.
The previous alderman in the 35th Ward, Rey Colón, was particularly nasty to the unhoused population in the area, which includes Avondale, O’Connell says. She pointed to Colón’s decision to add concrete slopes under the Kennedy Expressway that were specifically aimed at making it difficult for unhoused people to sleep under the freeway.
The area’s new alderman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, has a decidedly different—and more positive—approach to serving the unhoused population in the ward. After city workers cleared out the encampment and threw out residents’ belongings along the Kennedy Expressway in January 2018, Ramirez-Rosa criticized the move. And in an interview with the Reader, he says the attacks show the need for safe, affordable housing in the city.
“I’m committed to finding solutions for homelessness. And the solution is building housing, and fighting and advocating for the necessary funds to build housing so that people can have a safe and dignified place to call home,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “But in the interim, as I continue to fight for affordable housing, I’m not going to kick people while they’re down, or try and sweep the issue under the rug, or try to push people out of my community.”
Since his first election to the City Council in 2015, Ramirez-Rosa, who is part of the council’s democratic socialist bloc, has repeatedly had a hand in legislation aimed at addressing housing insecurity and homelessness in the city.
In 2019, Ramirez-Rosa cosponsored an ordinance that updated the municipal code to prohibit predatory practices by residential real estate developers. Last year, he also helped introduce ordinances that would terminate three tax increment financing redevelopment project areas in the city. Critics of the way TIFs are administered in the city say they block property tax money from affluent areas from being redistributed into underdeveloped and disinvested areas of the city, and are an additional barrier to affordable housing.
In the aftermath of last year’s fires, Avondale residents rallied around the homeless population, giving new tents, food, and other supplies. Neighbors say that’s not uncommon for the community.
Esteban Burgoa has lived in Avondale for roughly 25 years and says he and others regularly support residents of the encampments, though that work has been hampered by the pandemic. He also hit back at notions that the encampments are unsafe.
“Sometimes a lot of people blame them for being alcoholics, drug addicts, but I’ve never seen any problems,” Burgoa says. “I see them looking after the community.”
But justice for victims is complicated, due at least in part to a dearth in legal protections specifically for people experiencing homelessness. Activists say that the fires should be classified as hate crimes—violent attacks motivated by bias—while also alluding to the many ills within the nation’s criminal justice system.
“If our criminal legal system wasn’t so broken, you know, if that meant that there was restorative justice or transformative justice for people when they were victimized, then I would be all about it,” O’Connell says of pursuing prosecution.
Alongside stigmas and a lack of legal protections, activists say structural barriers additionally prevent unhoused people from rebuilding after being victimized. Going through the civil rights complaint process is a heavy lift for anyone, let alone someone facing homelessness, O’Connell says.
O’Connell and others say the city should make whole people experiencing homelessness after they’re victimized or have had property destroyed. Ramirez-Rosa says the city should protect rather than persecute those facing housing insecurity, particularly during the ongoing pandemic.
“At the end of the day, government has a responsibility to provide solutions, and locking up homeless people, harassing them, targeting them with violence, whether it be state violence, or violence conducted by individuals, is not a solution to homelessness.” v