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A View From the Bridge

Two weeks before elections, the city cleaned out Joe's campsite on the river.

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A View From the Bridge

Two weeks before elections, the city cleaned out Joe's campsite on the river.

By Ted Kleine

"It was like a pogrom against the homeless," Joe recalls. A tall, angular man in a green army jacket, he's staring at the ruins of a campsite under a bridge at Fullerton Avenue and the river. The riverbank had been his home for the last two years, but now it looks like a garbage dump. Clothes, milk jugs, and sheets of newspaper are strewn across the mud. Only a few signs of habitation remain: a giant wooden spool had been employed as a dining table, and a metal can had once served as a cooking pot. Plastic bags hang like deflated balloons from a wire wrapped around one of the concrete pillars. Joe and his fellow "tramps" had stored their food in the bags to keep it away from rats. They sometimes squashed rodents with a tennis racket lashed to the end of a long stick. They liked to keep their place clean and free of vermin.

"Look at this," Joe says disgustedly, catching a pair of underpants with the toe of his hiking boot. "We didn't have shit like this. We had it bagged up."

A six-day-old red flyer is taped to a pillar. "Off Street Cleaning," it reads. "This Side of Street Tomorrow. 8 AM to 4 PM City of Chicago." The city had cleaned out the campsite, Joe says, but only with the aim of making it uninhabitable.

"They only took the stuff that we could use. They took my box"--a cardboard refrigerator box Joe had converted into sleeping quarters by reinforcing its walls with wood. "They took my kitchen. I had a nice windbreak from the north wind, and one from the south wind and the west wind."

Election time has usually brought one thing to the city's homeless: heat. And not the kind you get from a sidewalk grate.

"The police, they do a lot of hassling of the homeless before the election, and then they leave 'em alone," Joe says. "We're kind of used to it."

Joe and his camp mate--a bearded 59-year-old street veteran who goes by the handle "Old Dude"--first saw trouble coming last fall, when the police gave Old Dude a ticket for rooting through garbage cans. Old Dude earned what little money he needed by cruising the alleys of Lincoln Park, collecting aluminum cans and copper discards from the homes of the prosperous. Selling the haul to scrap dealers brought in about $20 a week, "enough to do my laundry, buy soda pop once in a while, buy something to cook."

Lincoln Park has a reputation as the best scavenging site in town, so Old Dude was able to furnish the campsite with the leavings of the leisure class. "There was all kinds of stuff that we needed," he says. "Clothing, shoes, a mirror, pots and pans, charcoal. People give you stuff too. I've gotten several bicycles."

Old Dude has been combing the neighborhood's alleys for years, but last November police ticketed him for the first time ever. "They put the kibosh to me," he says. "They threatened me. I took something out of a garbage can, and they gave me a ticket, and I had to go to court on it."

The ticket was dismissed, but Old Dude--who mistrusts the police and all other authorities--decided the cops were trying to shut him down for good. If he'd been convicted, a second offense would have cost him 30 days. He wouldn't have been able to even touch another garbage can. A cop might have spotted him and thrown him in jail as a repeat offender.

Old Dude is a born-again Christian who carries his Bible and most of his other possessions in a waterproof satchel he bought on sale at Menard's. He's been homeless for five years, since his "trade"--which, like many other details of his life, he won't reveal--slowed down. The first few years he slept in his car. Then someone smashed the windshield, and he couldn't afford to fix it. Old Dude was living between two buildings on Paulina until Joe--who figured he'd be a good camp mate because he doesn't drink--invited him to live under the bridge.

"It was a great spot," Old Dude says enthusiastically. "Are you kidding? Best spot I ever had."

Now that he's been rousted out, Old Dude spends his nights in a shelter and his days in another spot that he keeps secret. Sometimes he hangs out in a McDonald's on Ashland and studies the upcoming races at Sportsman's Park in a cast-off copy of the Tribune.

"My opinion is there's a push to get the homeless people out of the way," Old Dude offers as he lays his spectacles on the newspaper. He figures it's because the homeless don't contribute to the city treasury. Most don't work straight jobs, so they don't pay income taxes. They don't drive cars either, so they don't pay gasoline taxes.

"Mayor Daley, he hates homeless people," Old Dude says. "But people have to have someplace to live."

Joe (not his real name) is just over six feet tall. His height, lean face, and hair cropped short at the temples make him look a little like a young Samuel Beckett. His army jacket is patched with silver squares of duct tape, and the legs of his gray pants barely touch the tops of his boots. He always wears a band-aid across the bridge of his nose, for "vanity," he says: it covers a scar. Joe carries himself stiffly, as though he's trying to suppress some impulse. His baritone has a jittery quality, and his conversation is punctuated with brisk uh-huhs, oh yeahs, and is that rights.

Joe grew up on the southwest side and attended city colleges after high school, intending to major in sociology. In 1986 he moved to Boulder, hoping to study at Colorado University. That never panned out, and he ended up drifting down to the Gulf Coast. Eventually he found his way back to Chicago, and for the past seven years he's shuttled between homeless shelters, flophouses, YMCAs, and the outdoors.

Sleeping under the Fullerton bridge was an acceptable life for Joe, because he had friends there and he was right across the river from his job, a minimum-wage gig loading newspaper inserts onto trucks at a printing plant. An experienced camper, he didn't consider sleeping outside to be a hardship. He felt self-sufficient.

"I was able to find what I needed to wear, to eat," he says. "I'm kind of fussy. I eat the low-fat vegetarian. Lincoln Park is good for that. The people eat a little better."

For entertainment, he listened to a cheap headphone radio. The best part of the day, he thought, was sitting by the fire listening to overnight talk shows. The voices filled the darkness and kept him company while everyone else under the bridge slept. He also read, especially books that had something to say about the lives of the lower classes.

"If you've been poor, Dickens is good," he relates. "He was a contemporary of Karl Marx, who's another one of my favorites. If you're homeless, you really see how the laws are stacked in favor of the rich, and you see how the rich manipulate the laws against the poor. You see a lot of Marxian theory. I've also read Hugo, Les Miserables. Those are more romanticized, poetic. One guy who's realistic is Zola. So is George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London. I was a dishwasher in a restaurant, like he was in that book. He talks about how the restaurants can make money only by exploiting their labor. He lived in those cheap hotels too."

Joe saw the first signs of the crackdown in early February. "About a month ago, there were quite a few homeless people sleeping on the Blue Line," he says. "Just a couple weeks later, there were none. They'd changed to the Red Line, and you'd see homeless there. Now there aren't any on the Red Line."

Two weeks before the election, Carmelo Vargas, the director of emergency services for the Chicago Department of Human Services, showed up at the campsite. Vargas had been visiting homeless jungles all over the city, including the one on Lower Wacker Drive, trying to persuade the residents to come indoors.

"He goes cruising the streets in his van trying to get people off the street in time for the election," Joe says of Vargas. "It's pretty unusual for the city to run the tramps out of their holes in the dead of winter. That would seem just inhumane. The election would be the only explanation."

The tramps under the Fullerton bridge read about the city's sweep of Lower Wacker in the newspaper. About that same time, they heard rumors the city had cleared out a campsite a mile up the river, under the bridge at Belmont Avenue. Joe thought if his camp wasn't an eyesore or a health hazard, the city would let him stay. So he set about tidying up.

"When we heard about Lower Wacker and Belmont Avenue, the heat was on," Joe says. "We thought we should get the place looking neat. I was politically unwise."

The first time Vargas visited the campsite, he offered Joe two weeks in a hotel. This was two weeks before the election.

Joe was never ordered to leave his campsite, but when Vargas came around the next week he repeated his offer to put Joe up in a hotel--though this time it was just for seven days. Vargas was followed by a group of city workers, who posted the red flyers announcing the cleanup. "It was understood," Joe says. "The signs they posted said they were going to do the off-street cleaning. I think that's euphemistic for 'We're going to take all your possessions if you're not here.'"

So Joe loaded what he could carry into his black knapsack and accepted the city's offer of a $100-a-week room at the Milshire Hotel, an SRO on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. The room had a bed, a television, a sink, a closet, shelves, a dresser, a telephone, and a shared bathroom, but Joe was ambivalent about living there. He says he has an "anxiety disorder" that's become troublesome when he's lived alone, causing him to scream and bang on the walls.

"I wanted to get myself back into an apartment, answering a roommate ad," he says. "I wanted to do it on my own time. Being forced onto the city's timetable, I'm afraid of, uh, of, uh, my nervous condition."

Some of the homeless who were shunted off Lower Wacker also thought their eviction was related to election day. After the January 30 move out, about half the 80 men living there were shipped to Haymarket House, a substance-abuse treatment center. Mayor Daley "got a little good publicity, for, as far as the Haymarket House, getting people housing," according to longtime Lower Wacker resident Carl Brown. "They claim that they're gonna get people apartments, but it hasn't happened yet."

Brown and other men say the city offered to help them rent apartments as an incentive to get them into the vans going to Haymarket, but they were still cynical about those promises. Brown, an 11-year member of what he calls the "Lower Wacker Crew," says he has been forced out before during big events, only to return once things had settled down.

"It's just like the World Cup," Brown says. "They did the same thing. They cleared us out, put us in hotels, and once it was over, we were right back on Wacker Drive."

But this time the city is actually helping people find and pay for apartments, says Les Brown of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which has been keeping track of the men forced out of Lower Wacker. "What we're seeing is that things are moving according to plan. The folks that went into Haymarket House have been offered apartments. So you've got to give them credit."

Joe expected to be back on the street after his week in the Milshire ran out. Because his old spot under the bridge had been ransacked, he'd have to collect materials for a new campsite. Starting over in the midst of winter would be a serious hardship. So the day before the election, he called Vargas and asked if the city would pay for another week at the hotel. To Joe's surprise and relief, Vargas told him the bill was covered and the city was also assigning a caseworker to help him find an apartment--with a roommate.

"They're gonna help me find a crash. They brought me a list of places and said they would pay my first month's rent. Vargas gives every appearance of being a genuinely nice guy."

But Old Dude, whom Joe describes as a "philosophical dropout," wants nothing to do with the city's charity.

"They were asking for my social security number, and I knew I didn't want to be involved," he grouses. "They were asking for too much information. I don't trust 'em."

Now that the election is over, Old Dude's main concern is reclaiming the campsite. On the day after the vote, Joe saw tramps riding the Blue Line again--maybe that meant the cops would soon stop hassling people about sleeping outdoors. "Somebody's going to have that spot real soon if we don't get in there," Old Dude told Joe.

But Joe no longer seems interested. He's decided to try the indoor life for a while. "I want to work construction this summer and I need a place to stay," he says. "The city kind of intervened at a good time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): poto by Dan Machnik.

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