Homeless "sweeps" get mixed reviews

Tremaine Allen is a homeless man who frequents the lakefront in and around the 48th ward on Chicago's northeast side.

He often spends nights in lakefront parks, and says that most people living and sleeping in these areas come peacefully, seeking a safe and clean place to rest. 

However, if spotted after-hours during a park “sweep”, Allen and others will get the boot.

The homeless sweeps have garnered support from the community but have prompted questions and concerns by homeless advocates.

A July newsletter released by the 48th ward aldermanic office said the sweeps are conducted “to help ensure the cleanliness of the parks and to offer help to those who are living in them.” The sweeps are a joint effort between the ward office, the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and the Chicago Park District.

“It’s trying to help people, but also protecting the neighbors,” says Dana Fritz, an aide to Ald. Mary Ann Smith (D-48).

People encountered on sweeps are told to leave the park, and if they are homeless they are given the option of receiving medical care, shelter and social services support to “help them transition out of homelessness” according to the newsletter.  Any leftover trash is cleaned by the park district.  

The newsletter encourages people to contact the ward office “If there is a specific park location that needs attention.”

Summer sweeps have been done in past years on an “on and off basis” depending on how many homeless occupied the park, says Fritz. 

Last summer, the sweeps came after many residents complained about homeless sleeping and living in parks.  

“We haven’t gotten too many complaints about the problem this year,” Fritz says.  “But if it goes unchecked, it becomes much more of a difficult situation to deal with.”

The 48th ward resumed sweeps this May, conducting them irregularly, every 3-4 weeks, says Fritz. But if the numbers of homeless people in the parks increases significantly, or if more neighbors complain, he says sweeps will occur more frequently.  The next sweep is scheduled for tomorrow.

Allen, who is homeless, understands complaints about homeless people in the parks.  He says, “There's always bad apples in a bunch,” who reinforce homeless stereotypes.  

“I guess we're what they call undesirables,” says Allen. “But we're here. And not all of us are all that bad.”

He distrusts the motives behind the sweeps and says homeless people expelled from parks will “be back over there the next day.” 

“They just want to shake us up, not help us,” says Allen.  

But Fritz, the aide to Ald. Mary Ann Smith, said:  “No one is served well allowing people to live in the parks,” not the homeless people living in parks, the neighbors who live around the parks, and especially not children who visit the park.

James LoBianco, Deputy Commissioner of the city's Office of Homeless Services, says that for his department, outreach is not driven by neighbors complaints -- it's a "a core part of the work we do.” 

“The goal is to get [homeless people] to a place where they can live independently," he says .

Homeless people have the right to enjoy park space just like everyone else, says Edgewater resident Elizabeth Ritter. But residents still have legitimate complaints, she says, because “Obviously, some of the people living and sleeping in and around the parks don't respect the rules.”

Homeless people sleeping and living in lakeshore parks create several sanitary problems and health hazards for the community, Fritz says.

“There’s no restroom facilities in the parks, so that’s a problem. Also the people sleeping in the parks tend to not use garbage cans. Some folks have lots of belongings, so it looks unsightly,” he says. “A lot of them or at least some of them in the parks have substance abuse problems; so you might find glass bottles and needles.”

Eithne McMenamin, a senior policy analyst for the Chicago Coalition for the Homelesss, says, "People need bathrooms everyday. People need shelter every single day,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with offering people services, but it has to be sustainable and ongoing; it needs to be consistent.”

“To me, a park sweep is more for the benefit of others, and for the benefit of making the [neighborhood] look good.” says Daria Mueller, another senior policy analyst from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Family and support services staff conduct extensive outreach to homeless people outside of joint efforts with the 48th ward, says LoBianco, of the Office of Homeless Services.

"We are in that area daily and have been for years. Also the work that we're doing up there is work that we do all over the city. The only thing is that the alderman’s office asked to take the lead on coordinating a joint outreach," says LoBianco.

Both LoBianco and McMenamin noted their dislike for the 48th ward newsletter's usage of the term "sweep".

“Dirt gets swept. People don’t get swept,” McMenamin says.

Discuss

JAMES CAPPLEMAN, 07-20-2009

“To me, a park sweep is more for the benefit of others, and for the benefit of making the [neighborhood] look good.” Daria Mueller.

As a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with the homeless and who once founded a homeless shelter, I can't see any benefit of allowing homeless people to sleep in the park. No one is being an advocate when they turn their heads the other way and allow this to go on.

These individuals are being offered services to stabilize their lives and it's being done with dignity. If they want to refuse this help, that's their choice but breaking the park's curfew is not the answer. If that isn't enabling, what is?