In the last two years, we have all watched helplessly as an encampment at Touhy Park has grown from several tents to several dozen. After listening to the people of Rogers Park, concern seems to be two-fold. First, the people living in Touhy Park deserve better. We need to establish a minimum level of housing that is more appropriate than tents in a park. We need a longer term plan to accommodate people who, for various reasons, become unhoused. Rogers Park can lead the city by establishing a pilot program that addresses the needs of the unhoused.
We also need to return Touhy Park to Rogers Park residents. Due to lack of leadership, the Chicago Park District had little other recourse but to close the park—locking the doors to its field house and moving their summer programming for adults and children elsewhere. As many of you know, our parks provide affordable programming for low-income families, many of whom have few other options for their children during the unstructured months of summer. I, myself, relied on these programs growing up. They are absolutely critical to the well-being of our most vulnerable children. Additionally, the school across the street—Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA)—serves largely low-income students. Concerned parents and school officials are eager for a solution. By not taking action at Touhy Park, we are essentially sending these students a message that they are not worthy of a safe place to play or a safe route to walk to school.
The people living in the encampment deserve better from us as a society. We have to do better. We can do better.
It is unjust to the people living in tents, as well as to the families that need a park. We can provide comprehensive solutions when we work together.
What Can We Do?
After talking to many experts with experience working with unhoused populations, it is evident that we are not doing enough. We need to be 100% focused on addressing the problem and meeting it head on.
- Engage a task force to focus on the needs of Touhy Park. This task force should include representatives from the Department of Family Services, the Chicago Park District, housing groups, 24th District Police Department, and social services providers, like Trilogy and Heartland Alliance.
- Establish weekly meetings and regular audits of tent encampments to determine categories of support based on resident needs and to establish reasonable timeframes for transitioning of unhoused residents.
- Service encampment needs. This includes engaging with treatment providers and making sure that residents who are struggling with addiction and mental health challenges are getting the level of service they need.
- Set a deadline by which the park will be returned to the residents of Rogers Park. This includes informing encampment residents of the deadline, working with them to find alternative housing, and enforcing the 11pm curfew already in place for the Chicago Park District.
- Find additional resources to meet transitional housing needs. In the short term, this includes engaging with local property owners and housing providers for availability. In the long-term, I would like to present the city with a proposal to build a mini-homes transitional community. Mini homes would provide independent secure living facilities and would have independent mailboxes, allowing people to establish residency while they recover and transition to more permanent housing solutions. This proposal would necessitate the following:
- Securing a location
- Establishing a partnership with a construction company
- Engaging community volunteer builders
- Partnering with local nonprofits to help with building materials and volunteers
- Partnering with local training apprentices to help with solar power installations and the construction of tiny mobile homes
- Finding a provider for mobile laundry and shower services
- Establishing the following partnerships to help facilitate the program:
- A shelter provider to run the program
- A local university to help with social services
- Providers of mental health care and addiction treatment
- Food pantries
- Groups who can provide workforce development opportunities
- Organizations who can help tenants access city services and applications processes
There are no easy answers to such a complicated problem. Without a doubt there are options from the short to long term, if we look at the facts in front us and make a comprehensive plan and take action. Rogers Park can lead by introducing solutions and serving as a pilot program.