The Village of Forest Park is working with Housing Forward, a nonprofit housing and supportive services organization, to help individuals who camp out at the CSX railroad viaduct, mostly between Harlem and Desplaines avenues.
Concerns about panhandling and drug use on and around the spot where Harlem Avenue crosses the Eisenhower Expressway aren’t new, and neither are occasional reports of homeless individuals camping out on the fenced-off land along the expressway. But Mayor Rory Hoskins drew attention to the issue during the Aug. 22 village council meeting. He said the village “dismantled” a homeless encampment on the railroad embankment a month earlier, only for another one to pop up again recently. He said the village has been working with Housing Forward to get those individuals into a more stable housing situation, but the village is interested in finding a “more permanent solution to discourage homeless encampments in the area.”
Part of the issue is overlapping jurisdiction. The Illinois Department of Transportation controls the expressway, and some of the land outside of it is owned by Cook County. Both CSX Railway and the CTA Blue Line cross the expressway on separate bridges, from the south side of the expressway to separate rights of way on the north side.
Steve Glinke, whose responsibilities at village hall include heading the department of public health and safety, said Forest Park has been trying to figure out exactly who is responsible for the health and safety on the property.
“The village is still doing their due diligence to determine ownership,” he said. “The site is complicated and the players include IDOT, CSX Railroad, CTA and the county. At this time only CSX has taken limited action at the site.”
While there is a fence running along the north side of the expressway, the Review in a visit last week was able to find four holes a person could easily fit through. The holes roughly parallel Lathrop Avenue and next to Desplaines Avenue have police caution tape that has been torn through.
Commissioner of Health and Safety Maria Maxham, who previously served as the Review’s editor, told the Review that, in the beginning of August, the village was alerted that there were three people living along the embankment. A CXS railroad police officer escorted her and Glinke as they looked around the space, where they saw used needles strewn about.
Glinke said that, as of Aug. 24, two homeless men occupied the encampment.
“CSX removed several trailers of debris as well as a significant number of used insulin syringes,” he said at the time. “We’re working with partner agencies that advocate for the homeless in the hopes of getting them the assistance they need.”
The Review visited the embankment on Aug. 31. The area east of Desplaines Avenue was relatively clean, and there was no evidence of anyone living there at the time. But there was a small camp further west, directly north of the Forest Park CTA terminal. The one person on site at the time of our visit declined to speak to the Review.
Maxham said the village has been working with Housing Forward. According to its website, the organization starts by helping homeless individuals address their basic needs, offering food, water, hygiene supplies and fresh clothing. Building trust can take time, the site says, but if the trust is built and individuals are interested, Housing Forward helps them get supportive housing and other services.
As previously reported by the Review, in recent months, Housing Forward and three other homeless services organizations — ShowerUp Chicago, the Night Ministry and Loyola Street Medicine team — have been working with the Forest Park Public Library and the village to provide a wide range of services in the Mohr Community Center parking lot on Thursdays. Maxham said the village has been trying to direct individuals living in encampments there.
She said the challenge for Forest Park is that it simply doesn’t have the resources to provide the housing and support homeless individuals need, so the nonprofits’ work is essential.
“We’ve been trying to keep Housing Forward in the loop and encourage people to get in touch with the Night Ministry,” she said. “The [Housing Forward outreach team] — they’ve been out there. They are really interested in getting everyone in the system.”