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Chicago O’Hare airport homeless problem ‘out of control’

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Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has turned into a sprawling, “dystopian” encampment for the city’s rising homeless population, sparking serious safety concerns among staff and passengers, who say they’ve been followed and harassed.

Shocking photos show makeshift shelters set up inside terminals at the airport, which is the fourth busiest in the United States.

“It’s out of control. None of us feel safe,” Vonkisha Chatman, who works the overnight shift in Terminal 1 and 2, told CBS News.

Ms Chatman said she and her co-workers have been harassed by the homeless population, with rubbish being another problem, the New York Post reports.

“They will come up behind you. This one man followed us last night,” another airport worker, Catherine Thompson, told the news outlet.

“From the time we get here until the time we leave in the morning, they will be here.”

The two women said their supervisors tell them to call police, but they claim officers told them they can’t intervene unless the workers are physically touched.

“They just tell us to be careful because it’s out of their hands – like they can’t do anything,” Ms Chatman said.

One Twitter user posted photographs of a homeless man sprawled on the floor in Terminal 2, calling on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to address the problem.

“Please clean up this city! This is the current state of O’Hare Airport, homeless everywhere, sleeping all over Terminal 2 and getting in people’s faces yelling,” they wrote earlier this month.

“This is the first impression people get when they land in this city,” they added.

Another traveller shared a startling image of several homeless people, with their belongings and litter, camped between a glass door and an escalator.

“This picture of a homeless encampment was taken today at O’Hare @fly2ohare Terminal 1 baggage claim. Chicago needs better leadership,” they wrote.

A third person, who arrived at Terminal 3, said she had “never seen such a homeless problem” in the “50 years I have lived” in the state.

“It’s not even that cold out! Also, aggressively hit-up with, ‘Ya need a ride?’ in baggage. It was dystopian,” they wrote.

Jessica Dubuar with Haymarket Centre, an organisation which serves the homeless at the airport, told CBS News that the numbers are increasing every year.

In 2022, Haymarket encountered 618 new homeless people at the airport – up 43 per cent from the 431 they saw a year earlier, according to the report.

Asked why the homeless are sleeping at O’Hare and not going to shelters, Ms Dubuar said: “They’re full. The shelters are full.

“A lot of folks don’t end up at the airport because that’s their goal. That is the last option they have,” she said.

Haymarket Centre is funded by the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Department of Family Support Services.

“Our January at O’Hare was one of the busiest Januarys we’ve ever had,” Ms Dubuar told Block Club Chicago, a non-profit news site. “We are seeing more individuals and more encounters new to our system.”

About 65,611 city residents experienced homelessness in 2020, according to a 2022 report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Mary Tarullo, associate director of policy and strategy, told Block Club Chicago.

Monica Dillon, who runs The Northwest Side Homeless Outreach, said the city is “stretched thin” trying to deal with the growing problem.

“We need more social services and more dollars and money to work on homeless prevention, homeless outreach and shelter outreach,” she said.

One homeless man who spent a recent night at Terminal 2 described his plight in an interview with Block Club Chicago.

“I need to have surgery [because] my lung collapsed and then I got pneumonia,” the man, who identified himself as Shorty, told the outlet.

He said he is on disability benefits and hopes to have the surgery soon.

Jessy Pearl, a Transportation Security Administration agent at O’Hare, said she has noticed an increase in the homeless population there since Delta Airlines moved out of Terminal 2 and into Terminal 5.

“There’s more homeless people – more activity is concentrated at Terminal 2, since there’s less passenger traffic,” Ms Pearl told the Chicago Tribune.

Chicago recently received $US60 million ($A87 million) from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, part of a $US315 million ($A457 million) package of grants to combat homelessness, according to Block Club Chicago.

The money will go towards expanding placement services.

When contacted for comment, the Chicago Mayor’s Office emailed The Post a response from the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) that said homeless encampments at airports are a “common occurrence” during winter.

“The CDA is aware of the increasing population of unsheltered individuals at O’Hare International Airport. It’s a common occurrence at this airport and airports nationwide when temperatures drop in the winter months,” the statement read.

“The City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and their delegate agencies continue to provide 24/7 outreach to unsheltered residents at O’Hare. Outreach professionals engage with individuals experiencing homelessness at O’Hare and conduct needs assessments,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Family and Support Services added that people experiencing homelessness don’t always immediately accept help.

“Sometimes, individuals experiencing homelessness do not accept services and outreach teams have to engage them many times before trust is established and the clients are ready to accept assistance,” the department said.

“Outreach is not enforcement, and DFSS will continue to respond to community needs through trauma-informed, strengths-based approaches,” it added.

The Chicago Police Department told The Post it could not immediately provide information on calls to the airport involving the homeless or possible arrests.

This article originally appeared on the New York Post and was reproduced with permission

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