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Playground In Park On Safe Passage Route Overrun By Homeless, Residents Say

By Evan F. Moore | October 14, 2016 8:36am
 North Lawndale residents claim to have seen homeless people in Altgeld Park engaging in lewd behavior.
Altgeld Park's playground 10.10
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Neighbors of a West Side park want city officials to do something about the large homeless population that gathers there — some of whom cause problems and keep other residents from using the park.

Some North Lawndale residents who live near Altgeld Park, on Harrison Street and Washtenaw Avenue, have complained about the number of homeless who take refuge under a shelter next to a playground at the park, often sleeping there during the day and even overnight. They say some of the men often drink alcohol or use drugs or take part in other lewd acts on park property.

The residents said the neighborhood's homeless population comes from the Franciscan Outreach Association, a homeless shelter at 2715 W. Harrison St., directly across the street from park.

"Altgeld Park is our neighborhood park. The residents do not utilize the park because the homeless individuals who take shelter at the shelter across from the park take over the park," said Kimberly Griggs, who lives near the park.

Griggs and others charged that people convicted of sex crimes are among the men who use the park.

"There are sex offenders registered at the shelter, people are laying around the playground and park lawn all day," she said. "There is no park security.The supervisor and his staff have taken on this role. I am a long-time resident and I would love to feel safe taking my child to the neighborhood park. I have to take my child miles away so she can have an park experience."

The Illinois Sex Offender registry shows 13 people have listed the address of the shelter as their home address. The registry says their convictions include rape, criminal sexual assault and unlawful restraint, along with failing to report changes of address to the registry.

Franciscan Outreach Association is aware that some of the homeless people who frequent its facilities often end up at Altgeld Park. 

"We want to be good neighbors. We're trying to coordinate something with the park. We're involved with the CAPS and neighborhood block club meetings," said Ed Jacob, the shelter's executive director. "This is important to us. If there are concerns with neighbors, we want to improve upon that."

But Jacob said none of the men are considered child sex offenders, who are prohibited from living within 500 feet of a school, playground, or any facility providing programs or services exclusively directed toward people younger than 18. 

"Those individuals aren't allowed to stay here," he said.

A person who works at the Chicago Park District office next to Altgeld Park, who declined to give his name, said many homeless use the park, like Griggs said. A DNAinfo reporter observed the park district employee waking up homeless people who were sleeping in the park.

"This is a problem I inherited before I got here. Once they leave the shelter, they sleep in the park all day," the employee said. "When it's hot and sunny, they flood the park and the playground. Around the back of the building, they set up mattresses they sleep on all night. We need figure out a way for them to hang out away from the park and away from the kids."

Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Chicago Park District spokeswoman, said the department relies on the Chicago Police Department to patrol city parks, and urged any resident who witnesses illegal activity to call 911. 

Police officials declined to comment.

There was an armed robbery at the park at 10:55 p.m. Sept. 17, according to a Chicago Police database. There have been nine batteries in the park since 2014. In 2013, there was a criminal sexual assault at the park.

While there were no shootings in the park, there have been four people shot across the street or within a block of the park in the past three years. 

Cristina Villarreal, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, urged Chicagoans to report public health issues in parks, including incidents involving homelessness. 

“While homelessness in Chicago is not illegal and should not be criminalized, the city takes concerns of public health and safety very seriously and encourages the community to report any criminal activity," Villarreal said. "To support all Chicagoans in having a place to call home, the city coordinates with sister departments, delegate partners, and the advocate community to more effectively engage homeless individuals in service and shelter opportunities that not only meet their immediate needs, but to help them on a path to stability and housing.”

Neighborhood resident Julian Boyd, who attended a community meeting in August that discussed the uptick in crime on the West Side, said nothing has changed since then. 

"There's some concern because there's a homeless shelter right across the street. That's not a concern, but many of the homeless people who from are there go to the park to smoke and drink. Some of those guys are registered sex-offenders," Boyd said.

"People are concerned about taking their children over there. Since the meeting with the police, I'd describe the action since as 'little to no change.'"

Even though community residents have complained about the number of homeless people in the area around the park, a local school administrator suggested that more compassion be shown on the issue.

"I have nothing but heartfelt compassion for those people. I've never heard of them hurting anyone near the park," said Bob Muzikowski, the founder of Chicago Hope Academy, whose football and soccer field is next to the park. "I'm not going to say 'get them out of my backyard.' It could be managed better by hiring more park district staff."

Muzikowski said something could be worked out so that the homeless people who hang out in Altgeld Park have somewhere to go once the park closes. 

"When the lights go out at 11 [p.m.], no one should be in the park," Muzikowski said. "Unless you have a better place for them, where are they going to go?"

Griggs wants to see more resources put toward making the park safe for North Lawndale residents. 

"I want to take my daughter to the playground but I can't. There's safety concerns with the homeless shelter across the street," Griggs said. "They come over and stay in the park all day." 

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said a plan is being put in place to remedy the situation.

"We're working with Family Support Services, the police, and Streets and Sanitation to offer them services. You can't force it on them. It's voluntary," Ervin said. "We're going to work with them to achieve the best situation possible."

Ervin made a suggestion to the people in North Lawndale who've avoided the park because of the homeless.

"When a space isn't occupied, homeless people tend to hang out there. We can't put them out of the park when no one is there," Irvin said. "We've encouraged people to use the park. That is the best defense against people who are unwanted."

To that end, there is a community day at the park from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday featuring food and games. The event is being hosted by the Altgeld Park Advisory Council.

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