Construction to Start Monday to Transform Vacant Brighton Park Lot Into ‘Winterized Base Camp’ for Migrants: Ald. Ramirez

A vacant lot at 38th Street and California Avenue in the Brighton Park neighborhood is the proposed site of a winterized base camp for migrants. (WTTW News)A vacant lot at 38th Street and California Avenue in the Brighton Park neighborhood is the proposed site of a winterized base camp for migrants. (WTTW News)

Construction will begin Monday to transform a vacant, privately owned lot in Brighton Park into a massive tent to house at least some of the more than 1,500 migrants now living at police stations and O’Hare International Airport, Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) said late Saturday.

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Ramirez said Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office informed her late Friday that work would begin Monday on the base camp over her objections and after the discovery of “toxic metals” on the site in a letter posted on social media and addressed to residents of the 12th Ward, which includes McKinley Park and parts of Brighton Park.

“I cannot condone a living situation that puts residents, new and old, at serious health risk,” Ramirez wrote.

Ronnie Reese, Johnson’s spokesperson, said city officials are “confident that the property will be suited for the purpose for which it will be used.”

Officials will release more information about the environmental assessment of the site in the coming days, Reese said. That analysis examined “historical site and governmental environmental databases using the American Society for Testing and Materials international practices," Reese said.

The city will pay the owners of the lot at 38th Street and California Avenue $91,400 a month to lease the land, under the terms of an agreement reached in October.

Ramirez said the results of environmental testing performed on the site had not been shared with her office.

“Although remediation has been done, after a history of bad communication and lack of transparency from the city, this is not enough to assure the safety and health of the new arrivals expected to live on the site,” Ramirez wrote.

An ally of Johnson, Ramirez blasted the decision to begin construction.

“The administration’s decision to proceed without addressing our concerns not only undermines transparency and efforts of co-governance, but disregards the well-being of everyone in our community, including the asylum seekers who have come to our great city seeking safety and refuge,” Ramirez wrote. “It is essential for residents of this community to be fully aware of the environmental impacts and potential risks associated with this project. We have a right to know if the site is safe for both asylum seekers and community members at large.”

The plan to build a winterized base camp at 38th and California drew immediate and intense pushback as soon as city officials began considering the site in mid-October. At a protest of the base camp proposal, held Oct. 19, Ramirez and her aide were attacked, sending him to the hospital.

The crowd at the community meeting held five days after Ramirez was attacked appeared to be starkly divided along racial lines, with many of the most vehement and emotional pleas to scrap the plan coming from Asian Chicagoans. Some Asian Chicagoans briefly chanted “send them back” as officials spoke about the plan.

By contrast, many of those who spoke in Spanish or English said they were heartbroken that the city had no better option for the migrants than tents, which they said they feared would not keep out the cold winter weather that finally settled over Chicago over the Thanksgiving holiday. Others demanded more city funds to help all unhoused Chicagoans. 

The city is set to pay $29 million to GardaWorld Federal Services to erect the massive tents to house the migrants and care for them, under a contract that was originally inked by state officials. 

Many progressive allies of Johnson were furious that the city would do business with GardaWorld Federal Services, which contracted with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to move migrants to states led by Democrats, according to the Tampa Bay Times. That contract was never executed, firm officials told WTTW News.  

City officials have said it will take them three days to erect the base camp, which will have separate tents for sleeping, case management services, dining, showers and bathroom facilities. The base camp will open to house 500 people and expand to as many as 2,000 people, officials said

Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de León has said the base camps are a last resort to care for the more than 22,300 men, women and children sent to Chicago on buses paid for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican determined to harm President Joe Biden’s reelection bid.

Johnson has blamed the crisis facing Chicago on “right-wing extremists bent on sowing chaos and division in our city.”

The number of migrants, who are all in the country legally after requesting asylum, living at police stations across the city has dropped by approximately 50% in the past two weeks to 1,240, with another 276 people living at O’Hare International Airport, according to city data.

As recently as Nov. 9, approximately 1,500 men, women and children slept in thin tents outside police stations across the city, protected from cold, wet concrete only by cardboard, officials said. In all, more than 3,000 people were living at Chicago's police stations at the peak of the crisis.

While the number of buses arriving in Chicago has slowed, Johnson’s administration has expanded the city’s shelter system, which is now housing nearly 12,500 migrants, an all-time high.

Once the base camp is up and running, most of those who move in will be allowed to stay for no more than 60 days, under new rules announced by Johnson. A state-funded program that offered migrants six months of rental assistance is no longer available, raising fears that the new limits on resources for the migrants will exacerbate Chicago’s homelessness problem, and expose vulnerable migrants to the elements and put them at risk of becoming a victim of crime or violence.

Through the end of the year, the city expects to spend more than $363 million to care for the migrants, with little help from the federal government. The city’s 2024 budget sets aside $150 million to care for the migrants, but Johnson acknowledged that will not be enough to cover the cost of housing, feeding and clothing the migrants, many of whom who fled Venezuela amid political and economic collapse.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Nov. 16 the state would use $160 million to help care for the migrants and ensure they do not “freeze to death on our doorsteps.”

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

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