The Protest Camp Where Houseless Activists Fight Luxury High Rises

Houseless protesters in Chicago occupied a parking lot and then set up a long-term camp to fight gentrification—with the support of the neighborhood.

Hana Urban

Photo via Northside Action for Justice

CHICAGO — Isabelle Wright, a resident of protest camp RiseUpTown, puts out a chair for me at the edge of a circle. It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday in September, and people are chatting as their food grills. Occasionally a car pulls up and leaves cases of water, Covid tests or food on a folding table at the front of camp — donations to the over 25 members of this community of houseless people.

Many camped together on this stretch of grass next to the roaring DuSable Lake Shore Drive long before they began organizing collectively. When the adjacent Weiss Memorial Hospital parking lot was slated to become luxury apartments, the camp transformed into RiseUpTown. The unhoused residents partnered with local housing justice groups Northside Action for Justice (NA4J), Chicago Union of the Homeless (CUH) and others to protest the role of luxury housing in displacement and homelessness.

On August 21, a dozen people—housed and unhoused — moved into the hospital parking lot to block the construction. In an 11-day occupation, upward of 50 daily supporters came through. Anyone could sit in on clothing-mending workshops, listen to live music, or learn about the history of Puerto Ricans in Uptown.

The broad coalition, which includes disability rights activist group Access Living, neighborhood associations, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago and healthcare workers’ union SEIU HCII, shares the concern that the costly apartments will drive up rents and exacerbate housing insecurity.

They also worry that the much-needed community hospital will shut down. Dallas-based mega-landlord Lincoln Property Company bought the land from Weiss’ previous owner, for-profit hedge fund Pipeline Health, in 2021, for $12 million. We’ve seen this pattern play out before when hospitals start selling off their assets,” says Adam Gottlieb, an organizer with CUH and one of the parking lot occupiers. It’s often a sign that they’ll close in the end … because it’s not profitable.”

With the loss of Weiss, Uptown would also lose a nationally recognized gender-confirmation program. The coalition wants city officials to revoke Lincoln Property’s permits and expand hospital services and affordable housing.

Chicago requires all new apartment buildings with more than 10 units to reserve at least 10% of them at affordable” prices of $900 to $1,100 a month (with some caveats) — or pay an in-lieu” fee toward affordable housing citywide. Lincoln Property reserved only 8 of 314 units (about 2.5%) and paid local women’s nonprofit Sarah’s Circle $3.1 million in lieu of 24 more. One-bedroom apartments at the new building will start at a steep $1,700 a month.

Uptown has seen substantial gentrification over the past few decades, with increased rents (from $1,460 for an average two-bedroom in 2015 to over $2,200 today), a whiter population and the disappearance of the single room occupancy buildings that provided last-ditch housing for poor, disabled and houseless people.

Locals have protested outside Lincoln Property buildings throughout the city, held public forums and collected close to 1,000 signatures, according to Marc Kaplan, from NA4J. Throughout the parking lot occupation, NA4J members brought in food, water and tents.

They’re our neighbors,” Kaplan says. I’ve lived in the Uptown area since the early 70s. Some of the current unhoused people over there I’ve known since they were young, literally children who lived with their families in buildings here. The city has more than enough resources [to house] all unhoused folks who want to be housed.”

Wright, whose fading pink highlights are pulled back into a ponytail, tells me she’s been living at RiseUpTown for almost two weeks, but has struggled with housing since 2014. Every city has done this,” she says. They try to brush their houseless under the carpet.”

Wright is unimpressed with the solution offered by Uptown Alderman James Cappleman, who supports the luxury development: week-long hotel vouchers or placement in shelters to those displaced. Wright and others she knows have been sexually assaulted at women’s shelters.

Gottlieb, meanwhile, notes that the shelter placement offered by the Department of Family and Support Services is in Pilsen — 9 miles away.

The parking lot occupation ended August 31 after police forcibly evicted residents, but RiseUpTown is still demanding revocation of the building permits and conversations with officials about permanent, safe and affordable housing as a right for all.

Encampments of communities of people experiencing homelessness have become really important sites of organized resistance against gentrification because there’s a kind of solidarity that happens when we organize around the folks who are most vulnerable in our community,” says Gottlieb. Ultimately, by fighting for housing to become a human right, we are fighting for everyone.”

Camp Maroon in Philadelphia, a houseless protest camp of more than 100 people, wrung major concessions from the city in 2020, including 50 houses and a pilot tiny homes” program (although implementation has lagged).

The decisions at this camp are made by people here,” Wright says. There’s no hierarchy.… We all just try to help each other out.”

Update: After this story was reported, a fire broke out and damaged or destroyed most of the residents’ belongings. Thankfully no one was injured. The camp is now located down the street and remains RiseUptown.

Hana Urban is a freelance writer and fact-checker in Chicago. They tweet @likeplumptastic.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.