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Debate over controversial homeless encampment boils over in wake of fatal shooting

Jake Sheridan and Alysa Guffey, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — After weeks of the ward’s alderman asking Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to remove a West Loop homeless encampment struggling with safety issues, a man was shot and killed Thursday, adding fuel to an already contentious debate.

Officers responded to the intersection of North Clinton Street and West Lake Street at 12:50 a.m. and found an unresponsive man who’d been shot in the chest. He was transported to Stroger Hospital in critical condition and was later pronounced dead, police said.

Debate over tent encampments in the area stretches back beyond the recent controversy to the administration of then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In October 2022, activists resisted when the city sought to temporarily move newly donated winterized tents in the area for sidewalk cleaning.

“What was once a peaceful homeless encampment has turned into a magnet for drug dealing, violent crime and now a fatal shooting,” Ald. Bill Conway, 34th, said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, held across the street from the encampment as the people who lived in the tents milled around.

The site has become a political hot spot after Conway sought the support of Johnson’s administration to get the tents removed. Top Johnson adviser Jason Lee tied an offer to help to Conway’s votes on the approval of a referendum for an increased real estate transfer tax on properties over $1 million to help fund citywide homeless services and an ordinance ending subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, Conway told the Chicago Tribune in mid-November.

Lee acknowledged linking the issue of the camps with votes for the marquee Johnson policies, but defended it as an appropriate deal and said police would continue to respond to the encampments. Conway ultimately voted against the real estate transfer tax referendum.

 

Conway said the initial information his office received suggests Thursday’s fatal shooting was linked to an argument involving drugs. The Chicago Police Department did not describe drug involvement in its initial statement on the shooting. Detectives are investigating, police said.

The 59-year-old man who died has not yet been publicly identified, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

The block is one of several locations under downtown viaducts where people sleep in tents lining the sidewalks. While Conway acknowledged there are safe and peaceful encampments in other parts of Chicago, he said at the news conference that ongoing and visible drug use have made the West Loop encampment irremediable.

“This used to be a peaceful homeless encampment,” he said, gesturing to the tents under a viaduct on Lake Street. “Those things exist certainly, but this is very far removed from that situation.”

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