The complaints about drug use and homeless encampments at and around the CSX railroad rights of way are not new – and Mayor Rory Hoskins has been upfront about asking other government entities, including the Office of Cook County Sheriff, for help.

 And Sheriff Tom Dart responded as his office and the village worked out an agreement in February. Since April, participants in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) and Restoring Neighborhoods Workforce (RENEW) program have been coming out to clean up the viaduct. The sheriff’s office also sent out social workers to talk to homeless individuals to offer them help with finding permanent housing, accessing mental health services and other services. 

But Dart and others involved in the program told the Review that nobody should expect a quick fix. Persuading people to get services takes time, and some may fall off, for one reason or another. Making sure everybody who wants housing can get stable, permanent housing, Dart said, would go a long way.

The stretch of CSX tracks between the Eisenhower Expressway and Jackson Boulevard has been an ongoing concern for the village for years. While there is a fence along most sections of the tracks, there are large gaps and holes in fencing people can easily pass through. 

The issue is further complicated by overlapping jurisdictions. 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, and it’s not clear where CSX-owned land ends and CTA-owned land begins.

Dart told the Review that the embankment is a logical choice for people who want to use drugs out of sight but close enough to public transit and major streets. It isn’t unusual for many people to buy drugs on the West Side of Chicago, take the Blue Line el to the Forest Park terminal and simply walk to the embankment. 

Homeless encampment at the CSX embankment, near the Forest Park ‘L’ station | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

Homeless individuals set up encampments at the embankment for the same reason – it’s out of sight, but close enough to public transit and facilities such as the Forest Park Public Library and the Mohr Community Center. There is some overlap between the two groups.

Forest Park’s Department of Public Works has cleaned up the embankment in the past, and the village has been working with Housing Forward, ShowerUp Chicago, the Night Ministry and Loyola Street Medicine team to provide services for homeless individuals who sometimes camp out at the viaduct. But Sal Stella, public works director, said he didn’t have the resources to do clean-ups on a regular basis.

Dart’s spokesperson Kathleen Carmody said the village of Forest Park was meeting “another group within the sheriff’s office” to find other ways to address the village’s concerns. That group referred the village to SWAP.

Both SWAP and RENEW have similar goals – to give people convicted of non-violent crimes an alternative to going to prison. 

“It’s a valuable tool for the judges, so they don’t feel that you either let people walk out the door or put them in jail,” Dart said.

SWAP is geared toward people who committed relatively minor crimes and have never been to jail before. They get to avoid being confined altogether in exchange for doing unpaid clean-up work for municipalities for a certain period of time. Dart said the majority of participants never end up before a judge again. RENEW is geared toward people who have more of a record, and the program goes one step further, teaching participants how to “deconstruct” — that is, safety take down – houses. The participants get hands-on practice by tearing down long-vacant properties in communities that can’t afford to take them down on their own, and they leave the program with OSHA certification and skills such as carpentry, which can translate into well-paying jobs.

Jim DeLisa, who currently heads both RENEW and SWAP, lauded the “union guys” teaching RENEW participants, saying that they are passionate about the program and eager to teach. He also recalled a time when a classroom instructor noticed that some of the participants were struggling with reading and took them aside to help them on his own time.

“We’re trying to give these guys job skills,” DeLisa said. “It’s a second chance, a second chance in life.”

He said both programs have been effective. The majority of SWAP participants never get into legal trouble again, and 80% of RENEW participants either go back to school or get jobs. 

Dart said the pandemic put a damper on both programs, and that RENEW currently doesn’t have enough participants to deconstruct houses – so the participants are helping with clean-ups for the time being.

DeLisa said the participants clean up the embankment roughly once a month. He said that they try not to disturb the encampments, especially the residents’ tents and clothing. 

“The SWAP guys – they’re just picking up garbage, and that’s a big help, because, that way, our guys can get in there and remove the [hypodermic needles],” DeLisa said.

The Review watched the June 28 clean-up, and, indeed, the RENEW instructors  focused on more labor-intensive aspects, such as cutting down weeds, and handled the most hazardous part of the clean-up, picking up hypodermic needles and putting them in special biohazard containers. 

“These guys – they kind of take pride in the clean ups. They do,” DeLisa reflected. “They take a lot of pride in their work. “

In addition to RENEW and SWAP, the sheriff’s office sent workers from the Sheriff’s Housing Assistance Resource Program, as well as mental health workers. But Dart said that getting people housed and getting treatment is a long, arduous process, and ultimately, the most they can do is treat symptoms of a larger problem. 

“Until there are some better residential options for individuals that are living there at times, congregating there at times, it’s going to be an ongoing problem,” he said. 

That isn’t to say Dart believes that his office’s work won’t make a difference – it just won’t be a quick fix.

“That unit I mentioned, it will continue to be engaged, it’s just a very difficult issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be that constant [repetition], in hopes that eventually, we will see the drop of people there. But right now, I don’t know if it’s going to happen any time soon.”