ROGERS PARK – Joseph Walker had been living in a tent in Touhy Park since the summer when, “by the grace of God,” he found an apartment this month.
The apartment, on the other hand, is “bare”. He still doesn’t have any furniture or supplies to cook and eat with, Walker said. So on Wednesdays, Walker goes to Touhy Park, where he knows he can have a hot meal served by the neighbors in Rogers Park.
“I’ve experienced a lot of kindness,” Walker said between bites of chili and lasagna. “It is very good that people do these acts. Everything someone does, every little thing, I consider it a blessing.
For more than a year, neighbors in Rogers Park have banded together to provide a weekly chili meal to the dozens living in tents inside Touhy Park, 7348 N. Paulina St.
The operation has grown over time, with neighbors also offering fresh produce, personal hygiene products, clothing, and harm-reduction supplies.
The idea for a weekly chili night was floated by Ahmed Chaudhry, who lives near Touhy Park with his wife Dorian Ortega and their 10-month-old baby.
Chaudhry got his start last summer, often carrying a pot of chili and some supplies by himself to those in the park. Spending more time in Touhy Park, Chaudhry got to know the other neighbors offering help to the homeless, including those of the Rogers Park Food Not Bombs activist group.
Chaudhry’s family and Food Not Bombs then joined forces with other neighbors to host a weekly chili and resource distribution evening at the park. Residents and non-residents meet for a home-cooked meal.
“When it comes to helping people, that’s low fruit,” Chaudhry said. “I mean, we’re all close.”
For nearly two years, a tent city occupied a portion of Touhy Park.
The number of people living in the park has ebbed and flowed. The encampment persisted despite three “moving events” staged by the city, including one last week, that housed 84 tent city residents, officials said. Touhy Park encampment overlaps a increase in homelessness partly caused by the pandemic.
The existence of the tent city has been a major point of contention between neighbors, leading to squabbles on social media and dominating the conversation at town halls and gatherings for a proposed homeless shelter in Rogers Park.
As camp numbers increased this summer, the Chicago Park District relocated its summer day camp from Touhy Park and eventually closed the park field house. Even those living in the camp were i victims of a cruel joke when they were served false eviction notices claiming they were being moved to a posh downtown hotel.
The debate surrounding the tent city is partly what caused Chaudhry to get involved in helping those who live in the park, he said.
“I just felt that humanity was lost,” said Chaudhry, 34. “She annoyed me that there was so much condescension.”
So Chaudhry set out to turn a family tradition into a force for good. His wife, Ortega, made the chili on a weekly basis, often tinkering with the recipe with Chaudhry acting as taste tester.
The couple decided to start producing more chili and share it with those in the park. They still enjoy it, trying out different recipes and asking park residents for feedback, they said.
On Wednesday, Ortega whipped up a “Three Sisters Chili” that uses ingredients regularly planted and harvested by Native Americans in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, he said.
“I’ve never cooked for so many people, ever,” Ortega said. “Just doing something felt very natural to us. We live right here. How can you not do something?
At first, Chaudhry would come to the park alone, setting his large pot of chili on a park bench. He then met the organizers with Rogers Park Food not bombswho offered him a table during the weekly distribution of food and resources.
Food Not Bombs, which organizes around issues of food insecurity and social justice, has been providing mutual aid to Touhy Park residents since the encampment has existed, volunteer Gerardo Marciano said.
Distribution events started sparingly, but as the field grew, the group also sought to scale up its outreach efforts. Those efforts were aided by other neighbors trying to help out, Marciano said.
“We have seen the need for people to have more regular food [assistance],” they said. “We’ve seen a big increase in people helping by bringing food. Many do it themselves.”
On Wednesday evening, Food Not Bombs set up more folding tables in the tent city for the distribution of meals and resources.
Chaudhry used one of the tables for his chili pot and camping stove. Food Not Bombs brought a tray of lasagna and one member brought loaves of homemade bread. They also brought boxes of produce to hand out.
Food Not Bombs also provided hand warmers, hygiene products such as toothbrushes, and harm-reduction supplies, including the opioid overdose antidote Narcan, hypodermic needles, and a hazardous waste bin to collect used needles that could otherwise litter the park.
In the parking lot just north of Touhy Park, a Bosnian immigrant family has settled in front of their SUV, a trunk full of supplies to hand out.
Sadil and Alma Mujanovic, who formed the “Help From USA to BIH (Boznia and Herzegovina)” aid group, regularly distribute blankets, jackets and pillows at Touhy Park on Wednesdays. The family comes on weekends with food. Devon Market is one of the family’s partners, providing donations which the family distributes.
“We want to teach our children that giving is actually getting,” said Alma Mujanovic. “Do you have it inside? Then you do it. We wish we could do more.”
United Church of Rogers Park, A Just Harvest, and St. Jerome’s Parish also coordinate the distribution of food and resources in Touhy Park.
Chaudhry made a post about chili night on Rogers Park’s Facebook pages, which led other neighbors to join in. Some neighbors send cash donations while a neighbor makes homemade cornbread to go with the chili, he said.
An average chili night can serve about 30-50 people. Some who come for the meal, like Walker, don’t live in the park but could use the help regardless, neighbors said.
Wednesday night’s chili came on an unusually mild day in late November. But winter is upon us. This has led to a certain urgency in addressing the situation in Touhy Park.
Last week, the city’s Department of Family and Support Services conducted a “rapid relocation event” in Touhy Park. Twenty residents of the tent city were matched with housing, according to Ald. Maria Hadden (49th). Others were taken to an emergency shelter to temporarily escape the cold.
While 84 park residents have been matched for housing, new people keep coming, Hadden said in a video statement from the housing event. Housing events will continue to run as City Officials grappling with how to run the camp and eventually restore park programming, Hadden said.
As city officials debate policy to address homelessness, Rogers Park neighbors like Chaudhry will continue to help in any way they can.
“As long as people are here, I’m going to have pounds to them,” she said.
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