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Mayor Lightfoot says homeless people can't be sleeping at O'Hare; advocates wonder where they'll go

Homeless people being moved out of O'Hare Airport; where will they go?
Homeless people being moved out of O'Hare Airport; where will they go? 03:33

CHICAGO (CBS) -- "We absolutely, fundamentally cannot have people sleeping in our airports who are homeless," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this week.

The mayor made the comments as she takes steps to remove homeless people from O'Hare International Airport. As CBS 2's Marissa Perlman reported Friday night, homeless advocates are wondering where all those people will end up.

But in Terminal 1, they are gone. Near baggage claim in the terminal at 10 p.m. on any given night, you would typically see dozens of homeless community members taking shelter from the cold. Just two weeks ago, homeless people were seen sleeping on heating grates and crowding the terminal.

But the overnight hours this past Monday, there was not one homeless person in sight.

The photos of homeless people sleeping and on heater vents, using the terminal to dry their clothes, and trashing airport bathrooms were sent to CBS 2 by custodial workers who shared they have been harassed and followed by some of the homeless staying at O'Hare during their late-night shifts.

"None of feel safe," custodial worker Vonkisha Chatman told CBS 2's Perlman on Friday, Feb. 3.

Chatman said she saw police officers come in this week to clear out the homeless community.

In a news conference Thursday, Mayor Lightfoot said, "We have taken and will continue to take the steps that are necessary to move people out of the airports."

We asked the Chicago Department of Aviation whether those moves already happened this week.

In response, the department said:

"Mayor Lightfoot made clear Thursday that all City of Chicago agencies must continue to work together and provide services to unsheltered individuals at Chicago's airports. While it is not illegal to be homeless in this city, it is trespassing to be at O'Hare or Midway without any airport business. The CDA remains committed to providing financial and logistical support to its partners at the Department of Family Support Services (DFSS), the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) to ensure O'Hare and Midway remain safe and secure for our passengers, while also doing what we can to support individuals experiencing homelessness who make their way to Chicago's airports."

The Aviation Department referred us to the Chicago Police Department for tactics on how they were moved. But police News Affairs did not respond to our questions.

The homeless community seeking shelter at O'Hare is not something new. It has been going on for decades.

Walter Jacobson did not go to O'Hare as he set out to experience homelessness firsthand in his famous "Mean Street Diary" series on CBS 2. But he did list O'Hare alongside Union Station, Lower Wacker Drive, and West Madison Street as places that were known to be where homeless people came to rest and be left alone. That was in February 1991.

We found some Associated Press photos of homeless people at O'Hare dating back from even before that. They accompanied an AP story in 1989 about a plan in the works for the city to conduct nightly sweeps at O'Hare and take the homeless to a homeless shelter.

But advocates told us that has not happened - and now there is no shelter space.

And just two weeks before the mayoral election, Mayor Lightfoot announced a change. This was her complete quote from her Thursday news conference:

"The airports are a very different place than on the street; under an underpass. It's a secure location, and the message is clear from me to the Department of Aviation; the Police Department up there – we absolutely, fundamentally cannot have people sleeping in our airports who are homeless."

Advocates like Doug Fraser with the Chicago Help Initiative worry the mayor's move happened without a plan.

"So what's the support?" Fraser said. "I don't disagree the airport is not the right place – but where are they ending up?"

Fraser says the problem will now just move off of airport property, and elsewhere in the city.

"I would love to know where that help is," he said, "because as far as I know, every single shelter bed is full."

It is not clear if the efforts to remove the homeless community from O'Hare will continue, and for how long.

We reached out to Haymarket Services, which works directly with the homeless at O'Hare, and were told they are not going to comment at this stage. The organization said they want to focus on their mission and work.

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