In a tactical shift, West Loop alderman asks mayor to clean up homeless camps so the city doesn’t get sued by people with disabilities

Ald. Bill Conway’s pleas for help cleaning up sprawling tent cities in the West Loop because the camps have become centers for violent crime have fallen on deaf ears in Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office.

So, Conway is taking a new approach: He’s asking the mayor to help clean up the tent cities because they are blocking sidewalks, and the city could face lawsuits from people who live with disabilities.

“I am writing to you with significant concerns regarding the accessibility of the sidewalks on Fulton Street, Lake Street, and Milwaukee Avenue between Clinton Street and Canal Street,” the 34th ward alderman’s letter to Johnson began, in boldface type.

“The obstruction of the public way requires neighbors who use wheelchairs, walkers, or push strollers to put themselves in harm’s way by having to navigate… into a busy lane of traffic rather than on the sidewalk,” Conway continued.

“I implore you to relocate the tents in these areas to end the ADA violations in these areas,” the alderman wrote, reverting to boldface.

Conway warned Johnson that the city of Portland, Oregon, was “forced” to settle a pricey federal class action suit earlier this year because officials failed to address “an identical issue.”

The freshman alderman has been working for months to get the area’s homeless camps cleaned up, saying they fuel violent crime and narcotics activity in the neighborhood. He recently claimed that a top Johnson aide said the city could do more to address the issue but would only act if Conway agreed to vote in favor of two of the mayor’s pet projects.

Conway declined and reported the exchange to the city’s inspector general.

Last week, Conway fumed after a man was shot and killed under the Clinton L station, just a few steps from one of the camps he has been trying to get addressed.

“It shouldn’t have come to this, but it was eminently foreseeable that someone was going to get killed,” he said shortly after the slaying.

A homeless camp under the Clinton L station is seen on December 7, 2023. Yellow signs (left) announce an “off-street cleaning” planned for December 21. | CWBChicago

On November 8, a 39-year-old man was shot at the same location. Two weeks before that, a man was shot about two blocks away in the 600 block of West Fulton.

“For months, I’ve been relentlessly trying to get the Mayor’s Office to see that this site was no longer a peaceful encampment but rather a magnet for violent crime and drugs,” Conway wrote in an email sent to media outlets after last week’s murder.

On November 30, Chicago police arrested a 19-year-old man after he allegedly sold drugs to an undercover cop just a few yards from the homeless camp and the murder scene. Prosecutors said police went into a tent Tailon Appleton sold drugs from and found nearly three-quarters of a pound of heroin worth $52,875 and $8,610 worth of crack. They also recovered a loaded handgun with an extended ammunition magazine attached inside a backpack inside the tent and seized $1,188 cash from Appleton, officials said.

Prosecutors asked Judge Maryam Ahmad to keep Appleton in jail as a public safety threat, but she refused, deciding instead to put him on electronic monitoring. Ahmad supported her decision by saying the arrest was Appleton’s first as an adult, that he cares for his mother, who has cancer, and that he was “very compliant [with] officers.”

“Any number of recent events, including [Appleton’s] arrest, should have been sufficient to warrant [a mayoral] response. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but I hope it finally results in action,” Conway continued.

The alderman’s media statement claimed Johnson’s office sent residents a “stock letter” after Appleton’s arrest that included a “misrepresentation” that the tent city was “merely a peaceful encampment” and noting that “homelessness is not illegal.”

“The unfortunate response also disregarded the fact that for some time now, the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) hasn’t been able to get [residents of the camp] to accept their offer for rapid rehousing and has been referring cases to CPD—because it isn’t safe, for anyone,” the statement said.

“I also want to assure my community that as Alderman and a father who walks his young daughters through these viaducts each day, I will continue to do everything possible to address this dangerous situation,” Conway stated. “Everyone has the right to live in a safe community and deserves to have their concerns addressed by the Mayor’s Office without condition.” 

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com