The silver minivan with a pop-up top and Quebec plates showed up on the 1000 block of Erie Street, Tuesday, and neighbors took notice. Two elderly women appeared to be living in the vehicle, which had been tricked out with what looked like sleeping quarters.
“Last night we noticed two people sleeping in their car parked in front of our house on Erie,” a neighbor typed to the neighborhood email grapevine in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District.
Neighbors called police who questioned the women and gave them an overnight ticket. “Evidently they are not visiting anyone in the area, just decided this was a good spot to camp,” the email continued.
Residents observed the women brushing their teeth and eating breakfast on the street outside the van. They feared limited access to bathroom facilities might result in desperate use of bushes.
“Feels a bit like Burning Man for seniors. Yuck,” wrote a neighbor.
Wednesday Journal tried, but failed, to capture a photo of the women or the van on Thursday.
Speculation popped up on the Internet that the women might be affiliated with the Chicago visit of “Nun on a Bus,” Sister Simone Campbell, founder of traveling social justice lobby called The Network.
“You never know,” one unidentified neighbor pointed out. “I can just see the awful publicity now. So it’s important to tread lightly where people’s right to squat, or camp overnight on a residential street, is concerned.”
After many concerned calls and emails to the police, Police Chief Rick Tanksley addressed the neighbors in an email in which he clarified that the women were legally allowed to park on the public street because they had obtained a three-day overnight temporary permit. Tanksley was not available Friday to speak in person to Wednesday Journal.
“The occupants of the vehicle in question are two ladies who are tourists from Quebec, Canada, who are visiting Oak Park. To our knowledge, they are not visiting anyone specifically, but may have been drawn to Oak Park because we are a tourist destination,” Tanksley wrote on Oct. 1.
“Perhaps they are sleeping in their vehicle because they are on a shoestring budget while they visit us and other places during their stay in America; we don’t know. Neither do we know why they chose the 1000 block of Erie to park on; perhaps it’s because it’s a beautiful block and it’s close to the sights they want to see.
“It is not illegal for someone to sleep in their car. However, a tourist sleeping in a camper for a couple of days is quite different than a homeless person sleeping in their vehicle,” he added. “In the latter case, we work with the Parking Department to deny an overnight parking request, while also working with the individual to seek a more appropriate solution to their housing issue.
“Presumably they will be on their way with a positive opinion of the hospitality shown to them by this community,” he added.
Living in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Chicago area, Oak Park residents are accustomed to tourists but not camping tourists sleeping in their cars overnight.
Neighbors were concerned that street camping in Oak Park might become a “thing.”
“I’m sympathetic to the argument that a neighbor should be allowed to have visiting friends sleep in a camper outside their house,” wrote one resident. “I’d have no problem with that, which is why I checked before I called the police. I’d be surprised if you can just get a parking permit without visiting someone and legally sleep in a car on the street. What stops someone from just doing that over and over? If Oak Park has a ‘people’s right to squat or camp overnight on a residential street,’ I’d really love to know about it.”
Parking & Mobility Services Director Jill Velan said “extended pass” permits are traditionally obtained by visitors who don’t sleep in their cars, but have an extended reason to stay in Oak Park.
Velan said a passenger vehicle (not a camper or tour bus) may obtain a pass issued by license plate that lasts for three days. Vehicle owners can acquire extended passes in Oak Park for up to a total of 30 days per license plate per year.
“We’ve had street parking bans in Oak Park since 1937,” she said. “In the 1980s residents asked for temporary passes for relatives or people who were coming in from out of town.”
Velan said the village board is looking at revamping parking passes within the next six months. Already, residents may obtain seven overnight passes free per year. After that, they have to pay.