Staring down a winter with migrants at police stations or tent shelters, the city announced a new partnership with local churches to house migrants Tuesday.
The program — the Unity Initiative — will bring about 20 migrants each to a few local churches for temporary shelter and assistance with services such as legal help, housing and eventually jobs.
“The model fosters a sense of family support,” said Rev. John Zayas, a pastor who piloted the program independently over the past year. “It’s not just housing, it’s hope.”
The West Side pastor and Mayor Brandon Johnson announced the program at Zayas’ church, Grace and Peace Lutheran in North Austin.
The program’s reach is small, beginning with about 100 migrants who will be moved from police stations to churches Wednesday. Seventeen total churches are enlisted to participate, each sheltering 20 migrants, but several are already housing migrants through Zayas’ earlier initiative.
The program will be funded with $350,000 in private donations.
It comes as around 1,300 migrants remain camped out at police stations and O’Hare Airport.
Those numbers have fallen significantly in recent weeks — down from 3,300 at stations in mid-October and nearly 900 at O’Hare in early October — and several stations have been cleared out.
But many stations remain crowded.
Lydia Wong, a longtime volunteer said the Ogden District police station is too small for many migrants to stay inside, and although a warming bus comes to the station from 8 p.m. until morning, it’s become so cold migrants are left in a dangerous situation during the day.
“At this point the city is really gambling with people’s lives,” Wong said. “These aren’t any sort of conditions in which people should be outside. Even giving warm gear isn’t a great solution.”
The city did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the West Side police station. Eight of 21 police stations have been emptied. Several have more than 100 migrants.
At the news conference Tuesday, Johnson reiterated the city’s goal of emptying police stations and touted the program as the latest in the city’s changing migrant playbook.
“Timing is crucial, we cannot abandon asylum-seekers and let them go through Chicago’s winter alone,” Johnson said. “This is just one of many creative solutions we’re finding.”
Those other creative solutions include new shelter limits — due to take effect in January – and the migrant tent shelters at 38th Street and California Avenue and 115th and Halsted streets.
GardaWorld — the controversial company picked to build the camps — had begun placing base structures at the Brighton Park site Tuesday, mayoral spokesman Ronnie Reese said in a release.
“If there are no complications, erection of the base camp may begin as early as Wednesday, Nov. 29,” Reese said.
Reese said environmental mitigation strategies for the site polluted with heavy metals would continue and are expected to be completed at the end of the week.
Johnson acknowledged at a Q&A session after Tuesday’s announcement that the environmental assessment of the site had not been released. He said he expected it to be out later this week.
Johnson spoke at a podium in front of several pastors already hosting migrants, including Rev. Chad Bacon, whose North Side New Life church has been one of the city’s 26 official shelters since last year; Rev. Jonathan de la O, a participant in Zayas’ program since May; and Rev. Beth Brown, who started her own Faith Community Initiative over the summer.
Contributing: Fran Spielman
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.
More coverage of migrants in Chicago
Where to house migrants
- Chicago signs $29.3 million contract to build ‘winterized base camps’ for migrants
- Plans for migrant shelter at Amundsen Park field house on hold as city seeks alternate site
- As migrant crisis grows will faith groups step up and offer unused buildings?
- Lawsuit seeks to stop Chicago from using public buildings to house migrants
Long waits for work visas
- Asylum-seekers’ long wait for work permits: ‘It feels terrible, especially because I’m used to working’
- Chicago Democrats are pushing Biden to speed up work permits for migrants. Will they succeed?
- A year since the first buses of migrants arrived in Chicago, the journey to asylum for Vannessa Olivera, others is just beginning
How to pay
- City Council OKs spending another $34.5 million on burgeoning migrant crisis
- Preckwinkle pitches 2024 budget with more money for asylum-seeker health care
- Worst-case scenario: Chicago budget gap could reach $1.9 billion by 2026
- Chicago faces 2024 budget shortfall of $538 million — more than a third of it tied to migrant crisis