Brandon Johnson Touts Renewed Effort by Churches to House Migrants, As Brighton Park Base Camp Construction Begins

Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the migrant housing plan are Anthony Moser, a founding member of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, and Annie Gomberg, lead organizer of District 15 for the Police Station Response Team. (Produced by Emily Soto)

Mayor Brandon Johnson celebrated on Tuesday a renewed effort by 17 Chicago churches to shelter some of the more than 1,200 migrants being forced to sleep on the floor of police stations or at O’Hare International Airport, with city shelters bursting at the seams.

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Johnson touted what he called the “Unity Initiative” as his city officials announced that crews will start building the frame of a winterized base camp to shelter as many as 2,000 people near 38th Street and California Avenue as soon as Wednesday.

Each church will shelter 20 people, with pregnant women and children given first priority for spots, said John Zayas, the pastor of Grace and Peace Church in Hermosa, where Johnson announced the initiative. As the mayor spoke, Chicagoans shivered as temperatures hovered in the mid-20s for the second consecutive day.

“In the face of divisive forces that continue to desperately work to tear our city apart, we will overcome this humanitarian crisis, and we will do it together,” said Johnson, linking the arrival of migrants fleeing economic collapse and political persecution with those who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, which saw tens of thousands of Black people move north to escape racist terror in the South.

Most of the migrants who have made their way to Chicago arrived on buses paid for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican determined to harm President Joe Biden’s reelection bid.

There are approximately 1,100 people living at police stations across the city and another 150 at O’Hare International Airport, according to city data last updated Tuesday morning. Another 12,900 migrants are living in city shelters.

Zayas acknowledged that the churches’ effort will only be able to help fewer than 350 people.

“That’s a big dent,” Zayas said, adding that buses are set to bring 100 people to participating churches as soon as Wednesday.

Similar efforts by Chicago churches that began months ago have already helped resettle 400 migrants, Zayas said.

Mayor Brandon Johnson looks on as Grace and Peace Church Pastor John Zayas speaks about efforts to help shelter the 1,250 migrants sleeping at Chicago police stations and at O’Hare International Airport on Nov. 28, 2023. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)Mayor Brandon Johnson looks on as Grace and Peace Church Pastor John Zayas speaks about efforts to help shelter the 1,250 migrants sleeping at Chicago police stations and at O’Hare International Airport on Nov. 28, 2023. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)

The new initiative announced by the mayor is being funded with $350,000 in private donations, the bulk coming from David Fish, who runs the employment law firm Fish Potter Bolaños.

Chicago’s newest residents are the city’s future, Fish said.

“We don’t view them as a problem or a burden on the city,” Fish said. “They can make it in the city of Chicago. They just need a little help right now. They just need a small amount of assistance to get them so they don’t freeze and to help them find work.”

More help is needed from Chicago’s philanthropic community, Johnson said.

“Everyone can contribute to this mission,” Johnson said. “The timing could not be more crucial. We cannot abandon families and asylum seekers and let them go through Chicago’s winter alone.”

The Brighton Park base camp is set to open over the objections of Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) and after the discovery of “toxic metals” on the site.

Johnson said he was confident the site was safe to be used as a temporary shelter and pledged to release the full environmental assessment of the site by the end of the week, before any residents move into the base camp, which will have separate tents for sleeping, case management services, dining, showers and bathroom facilities.

Johnson did not directly answer a question from WTTW News and several other reporters about why he directed city officials to start building the base camp before the release of that environmental report.

Instead, Johnson said he was determined to move as quickly and carefully as possible to get people out of police stations and into shelters that offer more “dignity.” Johnson first vowed to move all of the migrants out of the police stations in July.

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

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