Defying Objections, City Opens Temporary Shelter for Immigrants in Shuttered Woodlawn School

City officials opened a shelter for immigrants bused to Chicago in a shuttered school in Woodlawn on Thursday, defying vehement objections from nearby residents that have roiled the race for 20th Ward alderperson and exacerbated tensions between Black and Latino Chicagoans.

The former Wadsworth Elementary School near 64th Street and University Avenue had been set to open as a shelter in early January, but an uproar forced Mayor Lori Lightfoot to delay her plans for nearly a month as she and other city officials sought to address concerns from residents and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward).

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Approximately 100 immigrants arrived at the former school on two CTA buses Thursday, only to be greeted by a group of angry residents, including 20th Ward alderperson candidate Andre Smith, the founder of an anti-violence group, who opposed plans for the shelter. The other candidate in the race, former Chicago Police Officer Jennifer Maddox, also opposed the shelter, saying city officials did not consult residents first.

“What they did was go behind all of our backs,” said Luis Cardona, who tried to block the first bus alongside Smith. “First, help out the people that need it here. Why help out countries out there? You need to work here first.”

As many as 200 immigrants could be housed in the former Wadsworth Elementary School, officials said.

Since Aug. 31, 2022, a total of 3,854 immigrants have been bused to Chicago from Texas, with an additional 1,400 immigrants coming from other states, officials said. Approximately 1,500 immigrants remained in the city’s care when the shelter was scheduled to open, officials said.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News on Thursday, but defended plans to open a shelter in the former school as “the right thing to do.”

"As a welcoming city, we must live our values and meet this moment to receive asylum seekers with dignity and respect,” a statement from a city spokesperson said. “The City of Chicago will continue to engage with local Woodlawn leaders and community residents.”

Taylor did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News on Thursday, but said that Woodlawn residents are not anti-immigrant but are angry that Lightfoot’s administration decided to open a shelter in a shuttered school without consulting them or developing a plan to ensure the safety of everyone in the area.

Woodlawn has also endured decades of disinvestment.

“They could have done something for the people in the neighborhood,” said Woodlawn resident Michael Thomas. “We need a lot of stuff around here. If you go down 63rd Street, you see all the vacant lots and they putting all these wooden boards up.”

In addition, many Woodlawn residents said they needed the kind of resources being provided to the immigrants.

“There’s a lot of other things they can be doing with these schools,” said Woodlawn resident James Poole. “We have teenagers, young women that need places to stay with their kids. They’re sleeping in hospitals, on the L, in police stations. This is unacceptable.”

Representatives of the mayor have not responded to a question from WTTW News about whether Lightfoot was concerned about rising tensions between Black and Latino residents as a result of her proposal to transform a closed Chicago Public Schools building in a primarily Black neighborhood into a shelter for immigrants who came to America seeking asylum.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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