The rapid growth of a homeless tent city in Rogers Park suddenly led to the closure of the fieldhouse and relocation of activities to a nearby park.
Growing Tent City in Touhy Park Sparks Confusion and Closure of the Park
A homeless tent city in Touhy Park has grown in size in recent months leading to the closure of the Touhy Park fieldhouse and the relocation of all park activities to the nearby Pottawattomie Park, according to Jill Liska, president of the Touhy Park Advisory Council.
A lack of communication from the Park District has led to some confusion and frustration with how the tent city and park closure are being managed, according to Liska.
While homeless tents in the past have not been uncommon in Touhy Park, there were only nine tents in May. By the time the announcement was made to close the fieldhouse on Sept. 12, there were a total of 41 tents, according to Liska.
The park is managed by the Chicago Park District, which Liska and Alderwoman Maria Hadden of the 49th ward said has poorly communicated the reasoning behind their actions.
Touhy Park staff, including the park supervisor and Park Advisory Council, were not informed about the decision to close the fieldhouse beforehand, according to Liska.
“We haven’t had a great statement from anyone to tell us what’s going on and we’ve reached out to the park,” Liska said. “As a park advisory council we’ve asked for a meeting with the top management at Chicago Park District, and I haven’t heard back.”
Hadden has had similar difficulty acquiring information from the Park District about Touhy Park, specifically concerning the closing of the fieldhouse.
“I learned about it from Jill Liska’s Facebook post, right?” Hadden said. “So I would agree with Jill that communication around this issue and around decisions being made about Touhy Park has been very poor. What I would like to clarify though is, those communications and decisions around them are not under my authority.”
In a statement sent to The Phoenix, Irene Tostado, deputy director of communications for the Park District, expressed the value of Touhy Park and its activities to the Rogers Park community. She reiterated how those activities will be moved to Pottawatomie Park in response to growing numbers of homeless residents.
“In recent months, the Chicago Park District has worked closely with city agencies like the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS), public safety agencies and local advocates to notify individuals experiencing homelessness about the park hour restrictions, scheduled cleanings and removal while offering resources to those in need,” Tostado wrote.
Matthew G. has been living in Touhy Park for six months. He was evicted from his condo on Sheridan Road in Nov. 2021 after his roommate died of kidney cancer without giving Matthew prior notice he was sick. Since then, he has witnessed the growth of the tent city firsthand.
“Density has accrued within the last two to three weeks, when I came out here with me and my fiancée, it was six other tents, and it stayed that way for a few months and it’s just blowing up,” Matthew said.
At Touhy Park, Matthew has had a positive experience, for the most part, with the Park District.
“The park [district] has been good as far as landscaping,” Matthew said. “Garbage they’re great with they come almost every day and the port-a-potty. I don’t have too many complaints to be honest with you, as far as me and my fiancée,” Matthew said.
An unknown woman from the park district visited Touhy Park in the past week, according to Matthew. When the residents of the park moved some trash cans to clean up their living space they upset the park district representative.
“And she said, ‘Well I don’t want my cans over here,’ and ‘You guys are leaving too much shit around my park,’,” Matthew said. “And I said, ‘Our park?’ I feel like right now I’m being told that I’m on somebody else’s property and I shouldn’t be here. It just made me feel a little downtrodden.”
Matthew acknowledged the frustration from Rogers Park residents over the closure of the fieldhouse and the relocation of activities to Pottawatomie Park, but he also hopes they recognize, despite his hardships, he is trying to give back.
“I don’t want to be out here, necessarily, but I do make sure that I go around twice a week with a guy, Lincoln, who’s been looking after the park for 27 years and I spend an hour cleaning the park and handing stuff out to people,” Matthew said. “It’s just part of what you have to do, part of what I want to do to make sure that people know my face and understand that we all have a part to play.”
Lincoln is originally from Jamaica but has been living in Rogers Park while assisting the homeless in and around Touhy Park for the past 27 years. He was not especially fond of the previous 49th ward Alderman Joe Moore, but he is a supporter of Hadden.
“When Maria [Hadden] came, that’s when the tents came, because she said they aren’t animals,” Lincoln said.
The tent city has become a contentious topic in Rogers Park, with Liska saying she has been subject to personal name calling and harassment. Hadden assures this is not an unique issue to Touhy Park.
“The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless organization’s report on homelessness in Chicago came out two days ago saying that we had a 12% increase in people experiencing homelessness in 2020, right?” Hadden said. “So we’re in 2022. There are a ton of people experiencing homelessness all around the city and Rogers Park is not immune.”
Hadden released a newsletter on Sept. 25 addressing Touhy Park in more depth and promoting an Oct. 3 Zoom meeting which will include herself and the Park District. Community members can register for the meeting online via Hadden’s Facebook page.
Featured image by Hunter Minne | The Phoenix