Lester Jones (left) and Rodrigo Pulido Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

Rodrigo Pulido sat on a bench beside his tent in Touhy Park in July, watching over the tents of two other houseless residents who were gone to work a day shift.

Pulido has lived in the park for four months. He perched alone on the bench beside a large tray of cooked meat a stranger gifted him so that he could disseminate it to the 20 or more other people who stay in the park.

Now, a plan to build a men’s shelter near the park has divided residents of the surrounding community.

Pulido moved to Chicago from Mexico in 1999. He’d lived with his ex-wife and four kids for 20 years, working as a full-time carpenter on South Boulevard in Evanston and making up to $750 a week. Pulido, whose nickname in the park is Chilaquil, would leave $600 of that with his family, even after he and his wife divorced. Now he has cirrhosis, a liver disease, and can’t work.

His kids and ex-wife still visit at least once a week to check on him, ask about his needs, and invite him to meals. But he doesn’t want to worry them. And, besides, he has more than enough food, he said with a genuine smile, punctuating all of his sentences with a cheerful “I no lie!”

“My friend just took a little bit on the plate,” Pulido said, gesturing to the still mostly full aluminum pan.

He became friends with one of the restaurant owners bordering the park because he often cleans up around the area. In exchange for his generosity, the owner heats up Pulido’s food, or gives him trays of hamburgers, tamales, and more to share with other park residents.

Pulido has been friends with guys in the park for a decade; one of his friends, whose “house” he’s watching, has lived in the park for 18 years.

You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t live there, but the park, nestled in Chicago’s northernmost neighborhood, is segregated. Tents are arranged around groups of Black, Latino, and white occupants, but Pulido insists that he gets along with everyone. “Wherever you want to live I don’t care no matter what, because the park is not mine.”

Alderperson Maria Hadden (49th Ward) recently gave her support for North Side Housing and Supportive Services (NSHSS) to open a 72-bed men’s shelter at 7464 N. Clark, about a block north of Touhy Park. The facility would be the only shelter targeted toward homeless single men on the north side of Chicago.

Laura Michalski, the executive director of NSHSS, said the fact that it is a men’s shelter is one of the organization’s challenges. Neighbors respond better to emergency shelters for women and children, because they’re seen as a more vulnerable population.

NSHSS has been providing emergency shelter in Chicago since 1983. In 2021, it moved its Uptown facility from a crumbling 96-year-old building to a temporary outpost at a Super 8 Motel.

The new men’s shelter will replace the motel, adding 22 beds and more communal spaces for programming.

Hadden hosted three community dialogues for neighbors to “share their strong opinions.” One of those meetings occurred on the evening of Monday, August 1, at Pottawatomie Park. Alderperson Hadden opened the meeting joking that people behave better face-to-face than online, “and that’s why we’re doing this in person.”

One of the main concerns folks have, Hadden told the crowd, is that opening the facility would encourage other houseless folks to gravitate toward Rogers Park. In response to these particular concerns, NSHSS changed plans to move a Ravenswood drop-in center to Rogers Park.

“Will there be any mental help in this program?” asked one resident. “Because taking people off the streets who have just been homeless is a mental decision. Once you used to living out on the streets, it’s a process to get into that.”

Yes, Michalski responded, case managers are incorporated into the program, and the shelter will be a permanent supportive housing program.

Antoine Alexander, once homeless himself and a 13-year resident of Rogers Park, was one of the most vocal at the August 1 meeting.

“My question is, first of all, this does not eliminate the homelessness in Touhy Park,” Alexander began. “[A shelter] brings more homeless people into the area. We have plenty of homeless people in the area. We don’t need to bring more into the area.”

A low murmur and clap emphasized Alexander’s points.

Another resident, Jose Camacho, said he remembered when there was just one tent in Touhy Park. Then there were two, and the number kept growing, he said. “When the park empties out because of the shelter,” Camacho asked Hadden, “what’s going to happen with the new people who come to live in Touhy Park?”

“I don’t have an answer for you right now,” Hadden said. “But I actually will tell you, that’s part of what we have to work out with the city and with the park district.”

Lester Jones, 59, has been staying in a tent in Touhy Park for only a few weeks this year. Jones, who is Black, wore a red and white Adidas shirt, black pants, and red and white Adidas slides.

He’s originally from Mississippi—which you can hear when he talks—and came to Chicago at nine years old. He never left.

He said the park is better in the summertime, when the tents are more useful against the weather.

Jones was released from prison only a few weeks ago, where he was incarcerated for seven months. He’s been staying in the park since. Before that, he had an apartment on W. Fargo Avenue. Thresholds, an organization that helps provide health care and housing to people with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders in Illinois, helped him snag an $850 studio. He said he could pay that with an old job he had moving beans, rice, and more from warehouses for international shipment, but he hurt his knee and now it’s too messed up for heavy labor.

He spends his free time watching movies with his older sister, who lives off the last Red Line stop at 95th on the south side, when he can, and she’ll cook for him. By the end of the night, she usually encourages him to stay south because riding the Red Line at night is risky, and Jones worries about his own safety.

Jones and Pulido both want to return to where they are originally from.

“I like to travel all over,” Pulido said. He added he’s only in Chicago to see a friend. “He’s coming to look and say bye because I’m trying to go into Mexico again.”

“I’m going back down to Mississippi to live,” Jones told me. He’s still counting on Thresholds to help put him in an apartment on the south side.

Jones knows of a shelter on Canal Street, Pacific Garden Mission, but said staying there feels like being in a cage, because residents have to be back in the house by 6:45 PM. If he could, he would stay north past the summer.

“It’s much better, quieter. I like being by the lake, too,” he said.

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