Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is seeking more sustainable solutions to Chicago’s humanitarian crisis.
More than 10,000 asylum seekers have arrived since last August — many sleeping on police station floors after congregate shelters reached capacity, spurring community organizations and churches to step in and help.
The city is now aiming to create the proper model to operate as a truly “welcoming city.”
“We are known as a welcoming city, we have an ordinance as such, and now this is building the infrastructure to be able to operationalize that concept,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff. “We’re looking to partner with our community-based organizations so that they can staff our temporary shelters. They can also support the case management needed to be able to identify the permanent housing solutions, and we partner with the state to be able to cover six months of rental assistance so that individuals can start their life in Chicago and be on a path for sustainability and resettlement in our city.”
This six-month rental assistance is available to anyone who is currently in a city-run temporary shelter.
“Prior to the signing of the Fiscal Year ‘24 budget, the city of Chicago had identified some funds through the Department of Housing for what we call asylum seeker emergency rental assistance program, known as ASERAP,” Pacione-Zayas said. “... Now, with Fiscal Year ‘24, there is a significant increase of up to $25 million that the state has provided so that’ll expand our capacity.”
The hope is that this model would also bring down the city’s costly spending on congregate shelters.
“Currently we have a contract with a temporary staffing firm that is national and had been in the past utilized for staffing needs related to the pandemic,” Pacione-Zayas said, “and in many ways, this is incredibly costly. On top of it, the dollars are not staying in our city. You’ve got people from all over the country that are coming in for a period of one month, three months, six months, a year and they’re put up in hotels and they’re paid a wage … so that’s where the cost factor is not sustainable, nor is it justifiable. What we really want to ensure is that who we have working with our new arrivals are culturally congruent. They are linguistically responsive, and they are also trauma-informed.”
Catholic Charities is currently doing the case management for resettlement, identifying apartments, walking families and individuals through potential apartments and helping people sign leases, according to Pacione-Zayas.
Meanwhile, community-based organizations are providing wraparound support, legal services and access to public benefits.
But with the work permit process taking upward of six months for asylum seekers on a federal level, Pacione-Zayas said that city officials are in conversation with the Illinois governor, as well as national employer associations “who also have a desire to streamline work authorization.”