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Police now require ‘L riders to show proof of airport business to exit ORD station late at night

A few nights ago, security gates blocked several of the turnstiles at the O’Hare Blue Line stop, and police were asking people leaving the station for proof they belonged at the airport. A personal mobility device is parked in front of one of the turnstiles. Photo: Hank Searus

Streetsblog recently reported on how the issue of unhoused people sheltering O'Hare Airport seems to have impacted Blue Line service. Here's a recap to bring you up to speed.

August 1, 2020: Amidst an increase in homeless folks using the 24-hour Blue Line as a last-resort place to sleep during COVID-19, the CTA announced that trains to O'Hare would be "exit-only" between midnight and and 4 a.m. "to allow for added overnight cleaning of trains." To take CTA from the airport into the city during this time of day, it was necessary to pay a fare to ride a shuttle bus from O'Hare to the Rosemont 'L' stop. This made it impossible to spend the night riding the train back and forth between the airport and Forest Park.

February 15, 2023: Probably not coincidentally, during the next 2.5 years, the number of unhoused individuals riding the train to O'Hare and then sleeping in the corridors and terminals appeared to greatly increase. This was reflected in a sharp uptick in the number of people stopping by Haymarket Center’s O’Hare outreach program, which connects unhoused individuals at the airport with services. It became fairly common to see folks stretched out across heating vents, or even sprawled in the middle of hallways and vestibules. Maintenance employees complained to CBS Chicago that some homeless people had trashed restrooms and harassed them as they worked. The situation attracted international notoriety on February 15, when the right-wing Daily Mail published photos of homeless people sleeping at the airport, sometimes in squalid conditions, including a full encampment near the baggage claim.

February 17, 2023: Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded by announcing that camping at the airport would no longer be tolerated, promising that people ejected from O’Hare would be offered housing and other services. However, Chicago has a shortage of shelter beds. Homeless advocates and dozens of alderpersons have proposed the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would create a new tax on $1 million-plus real estate transactions to fund housing and supportive services for the unhoused. Lightfoot and allies have blocked the legislation.

February 27, 2023: A CTA spokesperson confirms that inbound late-night Blue Line service from O'Hare has resumed because "the CTA has been able to roll back many pandemic measures." That is, the CTA implied, there was absolutely no connection between the mayor's announcement that unhoused people could no longer spend the night at the airport and the end of the CTA policy that basically forced them to do so. That seems very unlikely.

Then on Tuesday, March 7, Hank Searfus posted the above photo of security gates across the O'Hare station turnstiles on the local sustainable transportation Facebook discussion group RTA Memes for Ventra-Expiring Teens. Searfus, who works for a major airline and travels through O’Hare frequently, reported that half of the O'Hare turnstiles had been blocked off, and police were monitoring the station entrance.

When I flew into the airport around on February 25 around 11 p.m., after Lightfoot announced the camping ban, I'd seen a large security presence at the the train stop, but didn't notice any gates,. I also saw zero apparently homeless folks hanging out in the terminals and corridors, in contrast to the previous time I'd gone to the airport, when I saw several people sleeping on the corridor floors.

When I flew into O'Hare on February 25 around 11 p.m., there were several security guards and police officers at the station. Photo: John Greenfield
When I flew into O'Hare on February 25 around 11 p.m., there were several security guards and police officers at the station. Photo: John Greenfield
When I flew into O'Hare on February 25 around 11 p.m., there were several security guards and police officers at the station. Photo: John Greenfield

When I asked the CTA about the gates, they referred me to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

"The CDA’s top priority is the safety of all passengers and employees," the department said in a statement. "In order to provide a secure environment at O'Hare International Airport, CDA security personnel work with the Chicago Police Department to enforce existing laws, which make clear that it is unlawful to be at Chicago's airports without any airport business. In cooperation with CPD and the CTA, the CDA has implemented overnight security checks at the O'Hare CTA Blue Line station to better secure the airport environment."

"CTA customers arriving at O’Hare between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. are asked by CDA personnel to show proof of airport business, such as a boarding pass or an employee badge," the statement continued. "Similar security checks have been in place since 2020." I've travel to the airport a few times a year since 2020, including during these hours, and don't ever recall having someone ask for proof I belonged there.

I asked a CDA spokesperson if any accommodations are being made for people who might have other legitimate reasons to take the train to the airport at night, such as picking up a friend from a flight. I’ve been known to ride the Blue Line to O’Hare solely to have dinner or drinks at the Gaslight Club in the lobby of the Hilton, a few hundred feet from the Blue Line station. The spokesperson didn't immediately respond.

I'm curious whether all people exiting the Blue Line station are asked for their papers. Or is enforcement inconsistent, based on whether an officer thinks someone looks like they might not have a legal reason to be at the airport?

And even if the checks are done fairly, there are some obvious downsides to this practice. In the event of an emergency, the gates would make it harder for large numbers of people to get out of the station. And while the sight of unhoused people sleeping on floors in the airport didn't provide a great first impression of our city to visitors, neither do steel security gates and a heavy police presence at a transit station.

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