ROGERS PARK — The Park District closed the field house at Touhy Park, the site of a growing tent encampment, this week.
Touhy Park’s field house at 7348 N. Paulina St. was closed to the public Monday and its fall programs moved to nearby Pottawatomie Park, according to local park and city officials.
The decision to close the facility comes after the Park District relocated Touhy Park’s summer day camp to Pottawatomie Park in early August. The day camp was moved over parent complaints and some residents voicing safety concerns stemming from the encampment, sources said at the time.
A Chicago Park District spokesperson said the relocation of programming is temporary and that the district is working with other city agencies to provide resources to Touhy Park’s residents. The next park cleaning is scheduled for Wednesday.
“Touhy Park is an essential community anchor providing services and programs to families in the Rogers Park community,” Park District Spokesperson Michele Lemons said in a statement Friday. “The district is committed to uninterrupted service delivery to families by temporarily diverting programming to Pottawattomi Park as we work with the broader community to address the influx of homeless residents in the park.”
The decision comes as the tent city has increasingly dominated conversation on neighborhood Facebook pages and community meetings as neighbors debate how to best help residents while keeping the park available.
‘It was a surprise and not a surprise,” Jill Liska, president of the park advisory council, said about the field house’s closure. “The summer camp was moved. The situation has not gotten better.”
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said her office was not made aware of the field house’s pending closure. While talks about how to address the tent city have been ongoing between city and parks officials for more than a year, shutting down the field house without explanation doesn’t help the situation, she said.
Hadden has scheduled a community meeting on Oct. 3 for neighbors to hear from parks and city officials on how they plan to address the tent encampment.
“It’s very unclear what they’re doing,” Hadden said of the Park District at a Wednesday town hall dominated by the tent city topic. “We have a lot of questions. We have not received answers for them. … I know people are frustrated.”
The Touhy Park tent encampment popped up in summer 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic caused a housing crisis and increase in homelessness.
Its numbers have ebbed and flowed. In November, the city relocated more than 20 residents into housing. Since the camp formed, 64 residents have been matched with housing, Hadden said.
Despite those efforts, the camp’s population swelled this summer.
Neighbors have complained of issues surrounding the tent city, including public urination and drug use. A man was shot in early July while in Touhy Park, though the shooting did not involve any residents of the park, Hadden said at the time.
Many mornings, Touhy Park staff would start the day by looking for needles laying in the park — one of the big reasons the day camp was moved for its last two weeks, Liska said.
Port-a-potties have been brought to the park. Park employees and security have been successful in containing the camp to the western portion of the park, keeping the sports fields open for recreation, Hadden said.
While the day camp was moved, other events have gone off at the park without a hitch.
A performance of Shakespeare in the Park this summer was successful, and a recent Movies in the Park event included about 50 participants who enjoyed their night without incident, Liska said.
But previous movie nights have seen 300 people come to the park, Liska said. Because of the field house’s closure, future park events such as Halloween parties and winter bonfires have been put on hold.
Neighbors have been clamoring for a solution to the problem for some time. Discussion of the tent city has dominated recent community events, including conversations over a proposed homeless shelter on Clark Street that has the support of Hadden.
At a town hall Wednesday, some neighbors said they are losing park services and called on the Hadden and the city to close the camp. Others said it would be inhumane for the city to move the camp residents without providing them with housing and other services.
Liska said she would like to see Hadden broker a deal with City Hall and the Park District for a plan that would restore programs and services at Touhy Park.
“It’s dividing our neighborhood,” Liska said. “Find a place that’s appropriate and gets them services they need and doesn’t effectively close down a park to the community.”
Previously, Hadden said it was City Hall and Park District policy to not evict tent cities from public property during the pandemic.
Hadden hopes to learn more about any changes to that policy in the coming weeks, she said. In the meantime, Hadden said her office is working with the Department of Family and Support Services to connect park residents with housing lists and other help.
Hadden also said she wants the city to make a bigger investment in emergency housing she said would go a long way to solving issues like the one at Touhy Park.
“I want to see people housed,” Hadden said. “We see new people [facing homelessness] all the time. We’re going to have to do more.”
On Tuesday, there were more than 30 tents set up in Touhy Park.
Not all of them are used for housing, as some people have multiple tents. That includes Jerome, who has lived at Touhy Park off-and-on this summer and has multiple tents where he keeps his belongings and items donated to the camp, including water bottles and bread.
Jerome said he has heard the about the complaints from neighbors and the desire to oust the camp. Either way, Jerome hopes to be in housing by the time winter comes.
But Jerome said he doesn’t understand neighbors getting mad at the camp’s residents for having nowhere else to go.
“I really don’t want to stay. I just couldn’t get an apartment fast enough,” Jerome said. “I do no harm to nobody. I’m not taking nothing away from anybody. What do you want to take away from us?”
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