A group of unhoused individuals have set up camp on North Boulevard under the ramp of the Oak Park Metra station. The encampment formed roughly two months ago and has a fluctuating populace with sometimes as few as five people and other times as many as a dozen or so, depending on the time of day.

One of the camp’s residents, who goes by the name of Q, has been camping out here for a couple weeks. Q found himself in Oak Park after he was essentially evicted from his basement apartment in Humboldt Park when his landlord sold the building, he told Wednesday Journal.

“I guess it was decided that the new owners would like to have the basement for their apartment,” said Q.

With the rest of the building fully leased, Q said the building’s new owners did not offer to help him find new accommodations, so with nowhere else to go, he found his way to Oak Park. And since coming to the village, he has “nothing negative to say” about the area, although he wishes to soon be housed again.

“Sometimes it can be, I guess, a little bit hectic from the citizens of the area because of the situation,” he said. “You know, residents don’t necessarily want to see a group of individuals sleeping right outside their front door or back door.”

Residents have not been hostile, according to Q, who said they mostly avert their eyes when walking past the encampment, not making contact, verbal or otherwise, with the unhoused people living there. He said he gives back to the community by being respectful. Just one person has complained about the encampment to the Downtown Oak Park Business Association, according to Shanon Williams, executive director.

“We live in a very compassionate community,” Williams said.

Only once has Q experienced antagonizing behavior by a resident, whom Q said was either taking pictures or filming the encampment with his phone. Members of the encampment asked what the pedestrian was doing.

“And he replied, ‘You animals have made this a campground,’” recalled Q.

Leadership within the village of Oak Park are aware of the encampment, according to Oak Park spokesperson Dan Yopchick, and are working with the other member organizations of the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition to see the unhoused people are supported and the Metra station cleaned. The area’s resident beat officer and other Oak Park police officers regularly speak with those living at the encampment. The beat officer stopped by the encampment while Wednesday Journal was interviewing Q.

“They assist in whatever way they can,” said Q. “So I give a thumbs up to the coppers.”

Another member of the homeless coalition, Live4Lali, stations its mobile outreach vehicle near the Metra every Wednesday afternoon, passing out food, toiletries, unused hypodermic needles and fentanyl testing strips.

Maywood-based Housing Forward has been sending representatives to the Oak Park encampment every weekday. The nonprofit, also a part of the coalition, works to solve homelessness by offering case management, temporary and permanent housing, and other support. The team is currently working to get the individuals at the encampment into housing, but it isn’t always a quick process.

“We are working within an imperfect system,” said Kadima Palles, Housing Forward outreach manager, referring to the country’s historical treatment of homelessness.

“We’re constantly putting Band-Aids on bullet holes and we’re constantly trying to fill in where we’re not getting the financial and human support of the bigger system.”

Palles tells her clients to be patient but being patient is difficult when living on the street. Many unhoused individuals have been abused or let down in the past, according to Palles, and if no one is offering an immediate hand, declarations of support can be hard to trust.

“In this world, unless you see it manifest before your eyes, nothing is real,” said Q.

Several factors have contributed to the increase in Oak Park’s unhoused population in recent months, including the expiration of pandemic-era support measures and the federal moratorium on evictions and financial assistance.

Unhoused people taking up shelter in O’Hare International Airport have been sent back onto the streets in the months since Lori Lightfoot, then mayor of Chicago, pledged in February to crack down on non-travelers sleeping in the baggage claim area.

Plus, an influx of refugees and migrants have flocked to Chicago shelters, leaving limited space for the city’s own unhoused. Q has experienced this himself, although he does not blame immigrants for utilizing the shelter system.

“I’m not a hater; I’m saying more power to you, but something needs to be done for the people that is here,” he said.

Lynda Schueler, Housing Forward executive director, understands this as well.

“There’s just simply not enough beds, and it forces people outside into dangerous situations,” said Schueler.

Housing Forward, which ended its rotating nightly shelter model when COVID-19 struck, recently opened a temporary shelter at St. Catherine-St. Lucy on Austin Boulevard with 15 beds. Its lease with the Write Inn, which has been lodging Housing Forward clients, ends in September.

Schueler is in the process of determining what the future of that partnership will look like come this fall, but it’s been a major success for the nonprofit. Living in stable housing at the Write Inn boosts client participation in Housing Forward programming with 83% of clients in the temporary housing program moving on to permanent housing.

The hope is that the people currently living at the encampment will become a part of that percentage of former Housing Forward clients now permanently housed. In the meantime, Schueler offered some advice for those who look down on the people whose only possessions are the clothes on their back and the blanket that separates their body from cold concrete: Be kind.

“It’s really easy when you’re walking by to make judgments,” she said. “Everybody is a human being and deserves to be treated with dignity.”

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