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Chicago migrants’ grievances focus mostly on treatment by shelter staff


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A woman living in a shelter for migrants in Chicago said she asked a staff member for a late-night glass of milk last November to feed one of her babies. Instead, she said the staff member asked her uncomfortable questions and a male staffer told her to show her breasts. The woman said she complied because she felt forced to do it.

“That person made me let everyone see my private parts, and I cried at night because that made me remember a lot of violence that I experienced when I was on the road,” the woman wrote in Spanish in a grievance she filed during her stay at the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel on South Lake Shore Drive.

The allegation is one of 248 grievances lodged by migrants staying in more than two dozen city-run shelters between June 2023 and January. WBEZ obtained the grievances through a public records request with the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Thousands of migrants — most from Venezuela — have been sent here from southern border states, primarily by the Texas governor, creating an ongoing humanitarian and financial crisis in Chicago. The city opened the shelters specifically to house the influx of migrants.

The nearly 500-page document obtained by WBEZ offers a window into how difficult and chaotic life can be inside these shelters — with complaints ranging from racist remarks to bad food and a lack of cleanliness. The majority of the grievances, about 60%, involve staff members from Favorite Healthcare Staffing, a Kansas-based company hired by the city to run its shelters. About 18% of grievances involve facilities and 15% relate to other residents. Migrants can file anonymous grievances using a QR code that directs them to an online form.

Grievances against staff include accusations of humiliations and hostile treatment, and some migrants say they are treated differently based on their sexual orientation.

“I feel discriminated against because [the staff] continue to bother me due to my sexual orientation,” one migrant wrote in Spanish, adding that staff wanted to kick him out of a shelter called the Social Club in the Loop.

Another migrant there wrote in Spanish, “A worker mistreats all the residents. She calls us bad words, she is racist.”

City says it investigates each grievance

A spokesperson for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) said a team investigates each grievance and may send a written recommendation for how to respond to the city’s Department of Family & Support Services.

“The city does not tolerate discrimination in any form and grievances of this nature that are founded result in corrective action up to and including demobilization from the mission,” OEMC wrote in a statement to WBEZ.

The city contracts a number of services at shelters — food preparation, trash and wraparound assistance. Favorite Healthcare Staffing has the largest shelter contract. Its roles running the shelters include site supervisors, janitorial services and shelter managers. In October, the company received a $40 million contract extension.

Keenan Driver, a senior vice president at Favorite Healthcare Staffing, told WBEZ in an email that complaints are investigated, verified and addressed, including up to termination.

“Favorite does not tolerate or accept discriminatory or abusive behavior by its staff, and expects all staff to treat shelter residents with respect and care,” Driver wrote. He said the company requires staff to participate in anti-harassment and de-escalation training.

The grievances also reveal some staffers were recommended for transfer to other shelters or dismissed. Sometimes migrants are moved to other shelters.

In one case involving a staff member accused of kicking a migrant out and throwing her belongings on the street while it rained, a manager wrote: “The coordinator believes verbal counseling will be ideal to remind staff about proper interactions with residents.”

There are also instances where there isn’t enough information to investigate a complaint or it’s too difficult to reach the migrant who wrote the grievance.

Life inside Chicago’s migrant shelters

When Margarita first arrived at a North Side shelter with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in January, the number of people crammed together shocked her.

“So many people that you don’t know, especially for those of us with children. I wanted to fly away,” said Margarita, a 39-year-old migrant from Venezuela.

Many migrants like Margarita don’t know what to expect when they enter Chicago’s shelter system after a long and dangerous journey across two continents and a perilous jungle. WBEZ is not using the migrants’ last names or the names of shelters where some are staying to protect their privacy.

Margarita and others say shelter rules include lines for showers and scheduled meal times. Families can’t take up too much space with clothes and other belongings. And they have a curfew.

Since August 2022, Chicago has received more than 36,000 migrants, most from Venezuela. In a political maneuver, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has spent millions of dollars in state taxpayer money to bus and fly migrants all over the country, including to Democrat-led cities like Chicago in an attack at their stances on welcoming migrants.

The uncoordinated nature of their arrivals, along with the sheer volume of migrants coming to the city — often without proper clothes or shoes — has put tremendous pressure on the city and the families who have made the trek.

Without work permits, people are struggling to find jobs and permanent housing. Migrants have camped out at police stations and O’Hare Airport. And while cobbling together a network of shelters across the city — from closed public schools to converted hotels — city officials have struggled to provide resources in circumstances no mayor could have predicted. In December, a 5-year-old boy died at a Pilsen shelter from sepsis. At that shelter on the same day, a grievance was filed by a mother who said her children were sick and needed immediate care. She said an ambulance was called but later canceled and that her daughter had been hospitalized twice with pneumonia.

Currently, Chicago has 23 active shelters housing 12,000 people. After postponements due to winter weather, Mayor Brandon Johnson is enforcing a 60-day stay policy. The first wave of evictions will take place in mid-March.

WBEZ has not been allowed into the shelters, but spoke with more than a dozen migrants who describe them as overcrowded and unclean, including complaints about dirty bathrooms, moldy food and bug infestations. Residents said they don’t file grievances out of fear of retaliation from staff members, which some migrants say can include being transferred to a much more crowded location and being denied services or basic needs.

At times migrants said they get what they need, but other times they feel humiliated and ignored depending on who is in charge. They rely on staff for an extra glass of milk, medicine or hygiene products.

“I got my period recently. Since I don’t have any money, I had to ask a friend for some pads. She gave me three,” said Rosbelis, a 46-year-old single mother from Venezuela, who said her shelter wasn’t offering any. “After that, I had to use toilet paper.”

Calls for greater access to shelters

Local volunteers and organizations also have limited access to the shelters. But several case workers allowed in a shelter on Foster Avenue, formerly a Marine building, say they have witnessed inappropriate behavior by staff.

“I don’t know if the people who are there working directly in the shelter are not prepared, or if the number of hours they work leads to a lack of tolerance with people, and eventually what they do is treat them badly — taking advantage of their power,” Cristian Villamizar said in Spanish. He is a caseworker with Onward Neighborhood House in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

Mayor Johnson has been criticized for not hiring enough local organizations to staff the shelters. Some advocates say when staffers come from outside Illinois, they don’t know how to guide migrants or refer them to organizations for help. City officials say they are working with Favorite Healthcare Staffing to prioritize local hiring whenever possible.

In November, the federal and state government partnered with city officials and community agencies including The Resurrection Project, a Chicago nonprofit, to assist eligible migrants with work permits. Other migrants have also been connected with housing assistance. But the staff at Onward say they want to see Chicago-based groups staffing these shelters. They say families need mental health support, help learning how to navigate their new city and education.

“The city needs to really examine this situation,” said Mario García, executive director of Onward Neighborhood House. “The situation won’t change as long as the same people keep staffing these shelters.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ. Follow her on X @AdrianaCardMag.

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