AVONDALE — A homeless encampment was a fixture of Fireman’s Park for years, even as the city tried to conduct sweeps to clear the area.
But in recent months, the half-dozen residents and their belongings that once filled the park have vanished — not because of a city cleanup, but because of a concerted effort to find residents stable housing and help, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said.
Ramirez-Rosa’s office worked closely with the city and social service agencies to match all of the Fireman’s Park residents with housing and other resources. One longtime resident recently moved into a subsidized apartment in a new complex down the street.
The city is funneling millions more dollars into outreach and housing programs to fight homelessness in Chicago with federal assistance from the CARES Act. Ramirez-Rosa credits the boost in funding for the positive outcome at Fireman’s Park.
“Now there’s more money, more collaborations, [and] we’ve been able to house people more quickly than we ever have in the past,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
Fireman’s Park at 3350 W. Diversey Ave. is a small park that overlooks the busy intersection of Milwaukee, Kimball and Diversey avenues. The park was named after three firefighters killed in an 1985 arson attack down the street. It has a large mural honoring the firefighters, which is being restored.
A tent city formed in Fireman’s Park a few years ago and grew in 2020 as the pandemic triggered a housing crisis nationwide.
The city tried to do a sweep of the encampment last summer, but Ramirez-Rosa and other neighborhood leaders demanded the city call off the cleanup and instead help residents find sufficient housing.
Then-WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef uncovered a series of emails between city staffers that show officials wanted residents out of the park, which is less than a half mile from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home.
Amid criticism from homeless advocates, the city allocated $35 million in federal CARES Act funding toward an expedited housing initiative to help unhoused Chicagoans at the height of the pandemic. Since then, the city has received more than $200 million more in federal funding to address the city’s homeless crisis.
These “historic” investments have made a difference in the 35th Ward, Ramirez-Rosa said.
Now, the city is partnering with delegate agencies and social service providers, including the Heartland Alliance and Catholic Charities, to increase the number of apartments available to people experiencing homelessness, Ramirez-Rosa said. Officials are also hosting “accelerated” housing events that connect people with apartments within a matter of months, if not weeks, he said.
“That didn’t really exist in the past. You’d have to wait much longer for a unit to be available,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
‘A Nice Way To Help Someone Who Is Truly Local’
Antonio David Hernandez was one of a handful of residents who lived in Fireman’s Park the past few years.
Hernandez moved there after a family estrangement. The 34-year-old’s mental health struggles have made it difficult at times to hold down a job, he said.
While Hernandez formed tight bonds with other residents, he said living in the Avondale encampment took a physical and emotional toll on him. He took it especially hard when people would steal his belongings, he said.
Ramirez-Rosa’s office and social service agencies approached Hernandez earlier this summer about moving into an apartment in a complex at 2740 N. Spaulding Ave., a new development owned and operated by developer Michael Fox of R.P. Fox & Associates located just a block away from Fireman’s Park.
The process of securing an apartment with no job and little income history was “nerve-racking,” Hernandez said.
“There have been moments in my life where everything was good to go, and in the end, it didn’t work out,” he said.
But Hernandez was approved for a Chicago Housing Authority voucher after about a month and a half of paperwork, a quick turnaround by city standards. When he got the green light to move in July 1, Hernandez was so excited he did a series of back handsprings.
Finding an apartment in Logan Square was especially meaningful because Hernandez grew up in the neighborhood.
“I really feel like God blessed me with people who were willing to work together as a team and really make this happen for me,” Hernandez said.
Fox, the owner of the Logan Square apartment complex, said he’s glad the city is making it easier on landlords and local leaders to help people with insufficient housing. Hernandez was granted a Section 8 voucher, but there are other city programs that have received an infusion in funding in recent years.
“It’s a nice way to help someone who is truly local, a known person who was living a block away,” Fox said. “When you help somebody out like that, and maybe start to free up the park again, it’s a double positive.”
Still, people who have experienced homelessness often need more than just an apartment, Fox said.
“There’s definitely a ton of positives in here. If there are folks out there who truly just need a help up for a short time, why not give that to them? But there are gonna be folks who really should be some place else because they need more mental health services, which is not what they’re going to get from us,” Fox said.
The rest of the Fireman’s Park residents have also found housing and medical care in recent months after working with Ramirez-Rosa’s office and social service agencies. A couple of them moved in with family, and one was admitted to a rehabilitation facility, the alderman said.
Under the city’s expedited housing initiative, the moving timeline for people experiencing homelessness was cut by nearly two weeks, said Joe Dutra, spokesman for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.
It takes 66 days on average for an unhoused resident to move into an apartment through the new city program, compared to an average of 78 days under the city’s original framework, a collaboration with dozens of local groups, Dutra said.
Dutra said the city is investing an additional $20 million in Chicago Recovery Plan funding to expand the expedited housing initiative, which will help hundreds more people experiencing homelessness and stabilize an existing 1,000 households that have come out of city programs.
Ramirez-Rosa said it’s critical the city continues to fund housing assistance and outreach programs for unhoused people, even after the CARES Act funding dries up.
“For me, it’s really important to continue to beat that drum,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “This is exactly why we need to pass Bring Chicago Home. Look at what we’ve been able to do with this increase in funding. Imagine what we’d be able to accomplish if we had that money year after year.”
Since moving into the Logan Square apartment complex, Hernandez’s life is more stable, he said. To calm his nerves, he sometimes goes up to the building’s rooftop to gaze at the Chicago skyline.
The apartment building is a mere block from Fireman’s Park, but it feels like a world away.
“I feel like it’s definitely a great start for me to relearn how to love myself again,” Hernandez said.
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