Joliet's Tent City: Dramatic Change 1 Year Later | Ferak Column

John Ferak
·7 min read

JOLIET, IL — Thursday marked a gorgeous afternoon, perhaps one of the last of the year, so I met up with former Joliet Housing Authority commissioner Bob Hernandez to make a return visit to Joliet's Tent City. It's where homeless people have pitched tents and lived within the woods on Joliet's east side near Route 30 and Washington Street.

My first visit to Tent City occurred in May 2019. I had not been back. Until Thursday.

What a huge difference from a year ago.

On Thursday, Tent City was a ghost town. There was not a single soul walking around in the wooded area they once called home. We found several tents buried deep under the leaves and broken trees. There were plenty of empty liquor bottles, leather gloves and rubber boots, plus lots of empty medicine bottles, all covered in dirt and leaves.

It was clear these items had been left here for many, many months.

"I was told by some public officials that it may have been disbanded because of COVID, because of the coronavirus, and a lot of them were moved out of this area," Hernandez told me as we stood in the forest that formerly served as Tent City.

"I believe the jurisdiction over here is both the railroad police and Will County police so we're right in the middle of where all these tents were last time."

Hernandez surveyed the ground and remarked, "There's clothes, there's remnants of the tents that were up. There's a bookcase that kept people's personal belongings in it, so it's all gone."

(Joliet Patch article continues below this photo inside Tent City.)

Image via John Ferak/Patch
Image via John Ferak/Patch

So where did all the residents of Tent City go?

"They may have been moved into motels, hotels, because several moved into motels and hotels on the west side of Joliet, along with the homeless that were staying in the shelters when they were closed down in the beginning of the coronavirus," Hernandez explained.

"A lot of them are living on the west side in tents. We see that all the time."

I asked Hernandez, who is in his late 50s, whether Thursday's observations signified that Joliet's Tent City may not exist anymore.

"Well, I think for now it doesn't," Hernandez said. "Once the pandemic is over, it will resurrect. As you can see, from the past storms we've had, over the summer, a lot of trees are down, tree limbs are down, so they're out of here as of right now. If there's any left, they're probably very, very deep, going toward the Briggs Street area in the woods. But right here, where the heart of Tent City is, it's gone."

(Joliet Patch article continues below this photo inside Tent City.)

Image via John Ferak/Patch
Image via John Ferak/Patch

Cass Street Viaduct

Tent City may not have any Joliet residents at the moment, but a few people are still living underneath the Cass Street viaduct along Route 30. The viaduct is near the railroad tracks for the Canadian National yard. It's also close to one of Joliet's longtime businesses, Berlinsky Scrap.

Hernandez said he had a chance to visit with a man named Larry, the self-proclaimed mayor of Tent City, who has lived underneath the Cass Street viaduct for more than 20 years. Hernandez wanted to introduce me to Larry, but on Thursday, we learned Larry has found housing through Joliet's Cornerstone Services.

While we were walking around underneath the viaduct, we saw a middle-aged man off in the distance. He was sitting on a chair next to his bicycle under a tall shade tree.

(Joliet Patch article continues below this photo of Joliet's Cass Street viaduct.)

Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch
Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch

We approached and struck up a conversation with Dan, who said he was 57. Dan agreed to be interviewed, but he insisted that I did not take any photos of him.

"I come out here and do some thinking," Dan told us. "It's beautiful here, man."

Dan told us he lived for many years inside Tent City and he also has lived under the Cass Street viaduct for a number of years, mostly during the 1990s.

Without a doubt, Dan prefers living in Tent City to living under the viaduct.

"Too many cars and people," he said in describing why he does not like living under the viaduct. He said some of the people who walk through the area "are crazy" and up to "bad things."

Generally, most people keep to themselves in Tent City, he said. One of the unwritten codes is that you never, ever, steal anybody's personal belongings.

"You don't steal," he said. Otherwise, "you're going to get justice in the woods, that's what they get."

Living in Tent City means having street smarts. You never want to leave your tent with lots of food inside. Otherwise, you can expect raccoons, coyotes or other wild creatures will eat it.

When he lived in Tent City, Dan said he rescued a cat that fell into one of the east side creeks. He said the cat remained his faithful companion for the next five years until it died.

Dan said he made some friends during his days of living under the Cass Street viaduct as well, but, "Three-fourths of them are dead," he noted.

Living in Tent City gave Dan a chance to experience nature in survival mode.

At night, deer were often obliterated by the Metra trains and their remains were devoured by the coyotes, he said.

There are two necessities for living in Tent City or under the nearby Cass Street viaduct. You need to have plenty of warm clothes to get through winter and having a Link card helps, Dan said.

Since 2018, Dan, like the former self-proclaimed mayor of Tent City, found permanent housing thanks to Cornerstone Services. Dan said he now lives near the University of St. Francis campus on the city's near west side.

He rides his bicycle to get around Joliet, like he did Thursday.

Dan said that Tent City had been heading in the wrong direction in recent years. He said that a number of young adults, particularly heroin and fentanyl addicts, were starting to hang around the woods.

In recent times, railroad police have been cracking down on people congregating at Tent City.

In 2018, Dan said the railroad police slapped him with a $500 ticket for trespassing. He said that he was fortunate that a Will County judge reduced his fine in half, however, one of his friends was not so fortunate.

"His fine was $750," Dan noted.

(Joliet Patch article continues below this photo of Joliet's Cass Street viaduct.)

Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch
Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch

At the moment, Dan said it's his understanding there are only two permanent residents living under the Cass Street viaduct, a man named Moe and another man named John.

Both men were not around when Joliet Patch and Bob Hernandez visited Thursday afternoon.

All in all, Dan said living in Tent City was a good experience, but a rollercoaster for weather. He said there were days when temperatures approached 110 degrees and winters that dipped to minus 29 degrees.

"From blizzards to floods to tornadoes," he added.

Dan also lost a couple acquaintances who died unexpectedly at Tent City.

One man, in his late 50s, had been drinking alcohol and the man's tent caught on fire about 10 years ago.

"He succumbed to smoke. He died in his tent," Dan said. "It was winter and cold out and he may have knocked over a candle."

Dan said that another friend, who was barely 50, died unexpectedly of a heart attack inside his tent.

Later, I asked Hernandez for his take on Thursday's visit to Tent City.

"It's good to see that social services during this pandemic time are helping to relocate some of the homeless from Tent City," Hernandez remarked. "Hopefully, through social services there will be no need to resurrect Tent City in the future ever again."

Tent City Home For Many Joliet Area Homeless: Ferak 2019 Column

Bob Hernandez opens a door on a small railroad storage shed where people have stayed in the past. He saw two large blankets inside on Thursday. Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch
Bob Hernandez opens a door on a small railroad storage shed where people have stayed in the past. He saw two large blankets inside on Thursday. Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch
People have lived underneath Joliet's Cass Street Viaduct since the early 1990s, according to a man who lived there named Dan. Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch<br>
People have lived underneath Joliet's Cass Street Viaduct since the early 1990s, according to a man who lived there named Dan. Image via John Ferak/Joliet Patch

This article originally appeared on the Joliet Patch