Southwest Side neighbors gathered inside of St. Clare de Montefalco Church to hear plans to make the Gage Park Fieldhouse into a temporary migrant shelter. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

GAGE PARK — As the city prepares to turn a Gage Park fieldhouse into a temporary migrant shelter as soon as Friday, neighbors gathered Tuesday night to express frustration about losing access to the facility.

More than 50 people attended a meeting at St. Clare de Montefalco Church, 544 South Washtenaw Ave., along with Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), Park District officials, the city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Family and Support Services.

The city has been housing people in temporary shelters as more than 11,000 men, women and children from Central and South America have arrived in Chicago since August. About 250 single men are expected to move into the Gage Park fieldhouse, 2411 W. 55th St., after Lopez suggested the location to city officials.

The men, currently living on the floors of police stations, could move in as soon as Friday.

The meeting quickly became heated as two dozen neighbors took turns stepping up to the mic to express their concerns and ask questions about the move.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (14th) discussed plans to make Gage Park Fieldhouse into a temporary migrant shelter. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

Several attendees asked what would happen to the children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who will no longer have access to the facility’s special programs. 

The Gage Park Fieldhouse is among just 21 other Park District facilities that offer special needs programs out of the more than 240 fieldhouses city-wide. 

Tiffoni Stepney-Davis, the mother of an autistic adult who has used the fieldhouse’s resources for 15 years, said she is concerned about the stress her son will endure moving to a new facility. 

As a special needs educator, Davis said she understands the importance of creating a “consistent” environment for those with autism and is certain the move will cause “behavior issues.”

Maya Solis, the Park District’s South Region director, said Gage Park staffers will be assigned to work with the same clients once they are relocated to neighboring facilities. 

Southwest Side neighbors gathered inside of St. Clare de Montefalco Church to hear plans to make the Gage Park Fieldhouse into a temporary migrant shelter. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

“He’s used to the activities at the park, he’s used to the environment, the area, so just because the staff is moving, still things are gonna change and [he’ll be in] an environment he’s not accustomed to,” Davis said. 

“I am going to have to pick up the pieces when he is moved to a different location,” she said, garnering a round of applause from neighbors. 

When she found out the fieldhouse was going to be turned into a temporary shelter, Solis said she and her staff immediately began making calls letting park users know their day camps events would be relocated to the Mckinley Park and Brighton Park fieldhouses. 

“We were asked [by the city] to do this,” Solis said. 

Matt Doughtie, a coordinator with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the city is in “constant search for new facilities” including some in other municipalities, but they are restrained to work within city limits. 

Over 200 locations were vetted, but many facilities did not meet health, safety and capacity requirements, according to the city’s slide presentation. 

Throughout the meeting, neighbors also questioned why they were not involved in the decision-making process. Ald. Jeylú Gutiérrez (14th), who represents much of Gage Park, said she wasn’t in the loop either. 

Jeylu Gutierrez speaks with constituents before Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García arrives at his Chicago Mayoral election night watch party at Apollo’s 2000 in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on February 28, 2023. Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago.

“I wasn’t aware of this meeting until last Friday, I would appreciate having me in these discussions,” Gutiérrez said.

Gutiérrez told Block Club someone from the mayor’s office told her about the “intention” of having a community meeting last Friday, but was provided limited information other than it was about the Gage Park fieldhouse being turned into a respite center. 

“This morning, I had to go into the Alderman Lopez [website] page and find out myself,” leading her to find out only “a few hours” before the meeting, she said. 

It wasn’t until noon Tuesday that she received a text from the Mayor’s Office with more details about the meeting, Gutiérrez said. 

“We need to be better in communicating between each and every of the [city] offices and stop pointing fingers,” she said. “If not, nothing’s going to get done in a good way.”

Ibis Antongiorgi, a neighbor who supports the opening of the shelter, said Lopez’s plan was a “really thoughtful” way to address the humanitarian crisis.

“He’s coming up with a plan where they can be there temporarily,” she said. “It’s not the solution, right? But it is definitely part of the solution.” 

Another neighbor supported the migrants being housed in the fieldhouse, but said the city should try to issue them work permits so they could financially support themselves. 

A few neighbors walked out of the meeting after city officials didn’t respond to their concerns.

“I noticed the ones that had the best points, they had no rebuttal.” Davis said. “They just moved on.” 

South American migrants set up their bedding while they seek temporary shelter at the Chicago Police 12th District station near Pilsen on May 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Lopez, who blocked City Council’s efforts twice to pass a migrant aid package, frequently pointed to the federal government’s role in addressing the nation’s immigration system during the meeting. 

“We can’t be the ones responsible for them,” he said, “nor can any city or state in this country. That is the federal government’s responsibility.”

Davis said the meeting was “just for show,” given that ‘[city officials] plan to move forward with the respite center regardless of community feedback.

The facility can house up to 250 people and will host only single adults, most of whom have been sleeping on the floors of police stations, officials said.

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