CHICAGO — Chicago is scrambling to house hundreds of asylum-seekers who are still sheltering on sidewalks, at police stations and at the city’s busiest airport as the cold weather sets in and with winter just around the corner.
The country’s third-largest city announced a partnership with religious leaders this week to house 400 of the migrants in churches. But with nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing and chillier conditions still ahead, more than 1,000 were still living at police stations or at O’Hare International Airport as of Friday, according to the city dashboard.
“As winter fast approaches, our need for greater collaboration and coordination grows. And that is why we are mobilizing Chicago’s faith community and our partners in the philanthropic community to meet this moment,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said at a news conference announcing the partnership.
More than 23,000 asylum-seekers have been bused to Chicago from Texas since the start of the year, according to the city. Other Democratic-led cities are grappling with similar influxes, including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, which has received more than 120,000 asylum-seekers.
Illinois announced this month that it would funnel an additional $160 million to help resettle migrants who arrive in Chicago, including $65 million to help the city build and operate two temporary shelters to avoid people sleeping out in the cold. On Friday, the state announced it would give an additional $4 million that will go toward feeding asylum-seekers in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository
Construction began this week on a structure meant to house 2,000 migrants in what had been a vacant lot in the Brighton Park neighborhood, but it’s unclear how quickly it might be ready, as local residents have been protesting the project, saying it doesn’t meet zoning requirements and that the soil at the site, which has a long history of industrial use, is toxic.
Alderwoman Julia Ramirez, who represents the ward on the City Council, said she opposes the project due to safety concerns for her constituents and the migrants.
“I will gladly shelter and welcome asylum-seekers. But I think that we haven’t done it in a very dignified and humane way,” Ramirez told The Associated Press.
The state said it wouldn’t move people into the shelter until it has been deemed safe. Johnson said Tuesday that an environmental report addressing concerns would be available by Friday.
Yimara Pajaro, a Venezuelan seamstress, said she and her partner had been camping outside a South Side police station for two months until they were moved Wednesday to a church near Washington Park as part of the faith community’s resettlement initiative.
Sleeping outside in Chicago, which has had several snowfalls and subfreezing nights this fall, left them in bad shape, said Pajaro, who suffered three asthma attacks worsened by the cold.
Blankets did little to keep out the chill. “It affected me a lot,” she said in Spanish.
Although Pajaro said she had no choice in whether to leave the police station, she feels grateful to be staying at the church. “At first we didn’t want to leave because we didn’t know where they would take us,” she said.
The faith-led housing initiative will prioritize pregnant women, children, and those who have been sleeping outside, according to Johnson. The churches plan to host people for 60 days with the goal of transitioning them to independent living or another shelter afterward, according to Pastor Torrey Barrett of Life Center Church, which welcomed 40 migrants, including Pajaro, on Wednesday.
Pajaro said she wouldn’t want to move to a shelter designed to hold thousands of people, like the one planned for Brighton Park. And if the site is polluted, “they should not bring anyone there,” she said. “We will get sick. It seems like our health doesn’t matter to them.”
The city had hoped to move the migrants out of police stations by Dec. 1, but it wasn’t able to do so, Ramirez said. But if the Brighton Park shelter is built, the city might be able to clear them out in the next few weeks, she said.
The mayors of Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York have been pressing for more federal aid to deal with the surge. Migrants have been arriving in the Democrat-led cities on buses funded by the Republican governors of Texas and Florida. Critics initially waved off the effort as a political stunt, but more than a year later, the cities are struggling to cope with the influx and their resources are dwindling.
The situation is even more pressing in New York than in Chicago. New York has received more than 120,000 asylum seekers over the past year, and about half of them are staying in shelters run by the city, which is legally required to provide emergency housing to homeless people.
New York is intensifying efforts to transport migrants out of the city as its shelter system reaches capacity, setting up a dedicated office to provide asylum-seekers with free, one-way tickets to anywhere in the world.
New York Mayor Eric Adams has called the city’s migrant influx a crisis and has begun to warn that shelters are so full that migrants will soon be forced onto the street despite the cold weather.
Savage is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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