First, Sidney Carter was laid off from his job as a dishwasher, when the restaurant where he was working lost business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, Carter lost his apartment, after his savings ran out and the state’s eviction moratorium expired. Since then, he has been living in a tent in Touhy Park, 7348 N. Paulina St., joining a dozen or so homeless men and women who began camping out in the six-acre park in July.
“I just came here one day and I saw the tents, and I just started hanging out here,” said Carter, 49. “It’s safer out here than riding the train all night. You do what you have to to survive.”
A tent and a sleeping bag donated by neighbors calling themselves the Rogers Park Solidarity Network keeps Carter warm, even as temperatures at night approach freezing. The Night Ministry bus delivers meals and medical care once a week. A Just Harvest and Rogers Park Food Not Bombs also donate food to the homeless.
There have long been homeless jungles in Margate Park, in Uptown, and at Roosevelt Road and Des Plaines Street, alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway. This year, though, tents have been appearing in neighborhood parks, as a result of the economic distress caused by COVID. Homelessness was already on the rise in 2020, and “the pandemic has only made the homelessness crisis worse,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge declared earlier this year.
“It’s hard not to see it as an effect,” said 49th Ward Ald. Maria Hadden. “Go up Lake Shore Drive. You see more people camping out. We’re definitely seeing more people unsheltered during the pandemic. Some of them may previously have been able to crash with a friend, but that’s no longer considered safe because of COVID.”
Elsewhere in Hadden’s ward, homeless people are sleeping under the viaduct at the Howard Street ‘L’ station.
Over the weekend, Hadden held a public meeting outside the Touhy Park Fieldhouse to announce a plan to find permanent housing for the campers. On Thursday, officials from the Department of Family and Support Services will drive the homeless to the Broadway Armory, where they’ll be able to sign up for one of 20 available units. Hadden is calling it an Accelerated Housing Event, or Rapid Rehousing. Those who apply should have permanent homes within two weeks to a month. Funds from the federal CARES Act have enabled the city to speed up the process, which previously took as many as 200 days.
“They’re going to take us downtown to get state IDs,” said Jerome Smith, a 70-year-old ex-Marine who has been sleeping in the park since the summer. “I had one, but I’m homeless. I been on the ‘L.’ They stole my wallet.”
Life in the encampment has been “pretty good,” Smith said. “They give us sleeping bags, blankets, food, snack packs.” Still, Smith is longing to sleep indoors.
“All I want is a one-bedroom or a studio,” he said. “I got all my stuff in storage by the Red Line. I’m gonna have my own little place. I’m an interior decorator. I got everything. Get me in. Break that tent down.”
Smith said campers use restrooms at “Walgreens and Jewels,” but during the meeting, Hadden heard from residents who complained that the homeless have been urinating and defecating in alleys. Since the park fieldhouse is usually closed, the alderman is working with the park district to install a portable toilet.
Drinking and drug use are also problems in the encampment. Men sit by the fence at the north end of the park, sipping from Miller High Life tallboys. On Oct. 17, Carter watched as paramedics pulled the body of an overdose victim from a tent — an incident confirmed by the alderwoman’s office.
“Some are dope fiends, some are addicts,” Carter said. “I’ve seen a guy OD. Just a bad shot of heroin.”
The Rapid Rehousing event does not necessarily mean the end of Touhy Park encampment, Hadden said. Some campers may refuse housing, either because it’s in a part of town where they don’t want to live, or for personal reasons. If they do, the city has a policy of not forcing the homeless out of parks.
“It still doesn’t mean people might not live in Touhy Park,” the alderwoman said.
Carter won’t be one of them; he plans to be at the Broadway Armory on Thursday, to sign up for housing.
“I’m just passing through,” he said. “I’m not going to be in the park when the weather really hits hard. I’m hoping I can get some kind of housing the same day, and then go back to work.”