Brandon Dotson has been living in a tent in Touhy Park for a few months while he waits to get more stable housing.
Then early this week he thought it was finally time to get out after flyers popped up informing people in the park experiencing homelessness they would be moved to rooms in one of Chicago’s fanciest hotels.
“I was actually excited. I packed my stuff yesterday, and I was ready to go,” Dotson said Thursday. “We never got anything.”
The 37-year-old South Side native said he got his hopes up, but Dotson and the rest of the people staying in Touhy Park in the 7300 block of North Paulina Street soon found out the information on the notices, which claimed their right to stay in the park was expiring in five days and that they would be moved to Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel, was fabricated by Sarah Lim, a 17-year-old DePaul University freshman.
Lim, who is planning on running for mayor of Chicago, said she taped up the bogus flyers so that she could “get my name out there.”
By circulating the sheets, she also hoped to get publicity directly to her website. The site assists high school and college students in attaining internships.
“I started the website last summer,” Lim said. “It has really been a struggle to get more traffic to it, which is why I resorted to the publicity stunt.”
It was no consolation to Dotson, who struggles to find somewhere to live, he said.
“I’m thinking I have a place to stay,” Dotson said. “I’m thinking that I could get my life together, but it’s not happening.”
Dotson said he was “sad” because he missed work to stay at Touhy Park, in the Rogers Park neighborhood, and wait for someone to come to take everyone there to the hotel.
“I didn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Dotson said.
Lim, reached by phone late Thursday afternoon, said she didn’t mean to offend anyone and was only seeking publicity.
“I have no hatred against homeless people,” said Lim, who said she came up with the idea last week because she knows the encampment is controversial. “People want something done about it,” Lim said of the homeless people living there.
“Yes, somebody made those flyers and made them look like official five-day notices to vacate,” according to Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, adding her name was listed on the bogus notices.
Vance Allen, 55, is also a lifelong Chicago resident having lived mostly on the West Side of the city, then Humboldt Park and now in Touhy Park. He stays with his longtime girlfriend, Gina Guerra.
Allen said he didn’t buy into the notices because he felt that if Hadden wanted to make a statement, she would have come down to the park and handed them to people herself.
The “only thing” Allen heard Hadden say during a visit after the controversy was that the people staying in Touhy Park are still welcome there, “and that was it.”
“Next week, there might be snow on the ground, and for the people that don’t have places to go, oh my God,” Allen said. “This is Chicago. The weather will change. What then? I hope everybody has some place to go before the holidays.”
Lim said she used tape to paste the flyers in the park and nobody there saw her or spoke to her as she did it.
“I realized now that a lot of people are offended by what I did and that wasn’t my intention,” said Lim, who turns 18 next month and is still planning on running for mayor, an idea she got from her professor at DePaul.
Lim said she plans on issuing a public apology.
Hadden’s staff first learned of the stunt during the day on Tuesday, Hadden said, and found flyers on park benches, on the porches of neighbors and on belongings of some of those living in Touhy Park.
Hadden said they removed the flyers, but confirmed some people believed them and had already packed up. By the end of the day Tuesday, Hadden had reached out to the Chicago Park District and the city’s law department.
“By Wednesday it broke on our social (media) and in our community news groups. Yesterday (Wednesday) midday I got a call saying people were out there posting them again,” Hadden said.
That’s when Hadden went to the park and spoke to the people living there. “They were pretty upset,” she said.
“A few people suspected it as fake and a few thought it was real,” said Hadden
“Whatever the intention, it was a very cruel act for all of these people who are pretty vulnerable and seeking housing,” Hadden said. Some are on waiting lists to be placed in homes.
As of Thursday afternoon, all the “harm and misinformation has been corrected,” Hadden said.
“The law department is looking into it,” Hadden said.
When Lim was told that Hadden thought the fake notices were “cruel,” she said: “I think that instead of trying to turn me into a criminal, Hadden should be focusing on the issues right now.”
A bewildered Hadden said she had no idea why someone would do this. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Hadden said.
Bill Morton’s name was also included on the flyer. Morton, president of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce, has launched a bid for 49th Ward alderman.
Trudy Leong of the chamber group said she had been trying to reach Lim but so far, no luck as of Thursday afternoon.
“We’re asking her for a public apology to Bill, the encampment and the Four Seasons hotel for the harm that she caused,” said Leong.
Leong wants it clear that “we had nothing to do with it.”
She and Bill Morton were blindsided by news that Lim admitted being responsible for the flyers, Leong said.
Last week, Lim contacted Morton via Facebook to ask him for help in her mayoral campaign — developing petitions so she could get the signatures she needed to run for mayor. He agreed and they were going to meet with her, but have not yet.
“We were going to help her,” Leong said.
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But on Tuesday, the notices went out at the encampment, which as of last week had about 41 tents, some of which have two people living in them.
Leong said they learned of the notices almost immediately, including when their Facebook community group began talking about it.
“I asked her to please just admit your mistakes and do better in the future,” Leong said of a message she left for Lim.