Two months after Chicago officials declared a renewed surge of migrants from the southern border had created a “humanitarian crisis,” 650 men, women and children are still being forced to sleep on the floor of police stations across the city, officials said Wednesday.
The migrants, who are all in the country legally after requesting asylum, are waiting for beds to open up in one of 12 city shelters, which are now housing 4,988 people, according to city data.
City officials are scrambling to feed, clothe and care for the migrants — while working to find them permanent homes, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s deputy chief of staff said during a meeting Wednesday of the Chicago City Council’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Committee.
“We have to make good on our promise to be a welcoming city,” said Pacione-Zayas, a former state senator. “We can’t just say it. We have to be about it.”
Efforts are underway to develop a comprehensive plan to handle migrants expected to arrive in the coming weeks and months, while caring for those who are already here, Pacione-Zayas said.
“All of us are painfully aware that police stations are not well suited for this use,” Pacione-Zayas said.
In all, nearly 11,000 people, most of them from Central and South America, have arrived in Chicago since Aug. 31, when Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent the first bus of migrants to Chicago, according to city data.
Fewer than 200 people have moved into permanent homes, and another 450 people are waiting to move after signing leases, with assistance from state, county and city officials, according to city data.
City officials are developing plans to open up as many as five new shelters to prevent new arrivals from being sent to police stations.
Under consideration is the Broadway Armory in Edgewater, which has run into opposition from residents who use the building for classes through the Chicago Park District. It is also home to private businesses and schools.
However, a plan to transform the vacant South Shore High School into a shelter for migrants is “on hold,” according to a briefing memo sent Friday to City Council members. That proposal from Lightfoot brought a furious response from South Shore residents and is opposed by Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward), who represents the area.
The Johnson administration will use $92 million from the state to care for the migrants in the coming months, with $15 million earmarked to help unhoused Chicagoans who have lived in the city for some time, Pacione-Zayas said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will send Chicago an additional $10.5 million to help care for the migrants.
“We can do both,” Pacione-Zayas said.
Between January and June, Chicago officials spent $101.3 million to care for the migrants, including the $51 million the City Council agreed to spend from the city’s 2021 budget surplus, Pacione-Zayas said.
More than 70% of those funds went to Kansas-based Favorite Healthcare Staffing under a contract signed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to employ people to work at city shelters, Pacione-Zayas said.
Those costs are “not sustainable or justifiable,” Pacione-Zayas said, adding that the Johnson administration is working to end that agreement and hire Chicago nonprofits to manage the shelters.
“I would like to see those dollars stay in Chicago,” Pacione-Zayas said.
Johnson has spent much of his first six weeks in office grappling with the arrival daily of dozens of migrants looking for food and shelter at a time when the city’s shelters are bursting at the seams. Since June 16, 14 buses carrying an average of 50 people have arrived in Chicago, Pacione-Zayas said.
The committee hearing was the first called by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), the committee’s new chair, and is set to be the first in a series of monthly meetings that will give City Council members a more direct role in shaping the city’s response to the crisis.
Under former chair Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), the committee did not meet in 2022, despite having an annual budget of $120,000.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward), who was highly critical of Lightfoot’s handling of the crisis, said she had been asking for a meeting like the one that took place Friday since October, and was relieved it had finally happened.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said the willingness of the Johnson administration to keep members of the City Council informed and involved was “refreshing.”
“That is something that we have not had,” Dowell said.