Emails Show Johnson, City Officials Notified About Sewage, Roaches and Illnesses at Pilsen Migrant Shelter Almost 2 Months Before Boy’s Death Highlighted Problems

Update: City of Chicago officials responded to this report on Jan. 17, 2024, and released unredacted versions of the emails referenced in this article. Read the updated story.

Mayor Brandon Johnson and his administration received complaints about unsanitary and unsafe conditions at a Pilsen migrant shelter as early as late October, more than a month before the death of a 5-year-old boy focused attention on the state of the facility, emails recently obtained by WTTW News show.

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On Dec. 17, 2023, Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero died at Comer Children’s Hospital after falling ill at a migrant shelter in the 2200 block of South Halsted Avenue. Then on Dec. 19, several other individuals were taken to the hospital from that shelter with respiratory illnesses, according to the mayor’s office.

The boy’s death and the later illnesses quickly drew attention to the crowded shelter, which was also the subject of a report by Borderless Magazine on Dec. 14. A cause of death for Martinez Rivero has not yet been released by the Cook County medical examiner’s office and there has been no determination made that his death and the other illnesses at the shelter were tied to unsanitary conditions.

However, emails exclusively obtained by WTTW News shine new light on the timeline of when Johnson and his administration were made aware of conditions at the shelter and what exactly those conditions were. The emails also raise questions about how the administration has monitored conditions at migrant shelters and the city’s oversight of outside vendor Favorite Staffing, which manages day-to-day operations at migrant shelters.

A photo submitted to WTTW News shows a sewer cover next to beds at a migrant facility in Pilsen. (Submitted photo)A photo submitted to WTTW News shows a sewer cover next to beds at a migrant facility in Pilsen. (Submitted photo)

On Oct. 27, Johnson and several top staffers, including Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze, were warned by email of alleged unsafe conditions at the shelter.

Around that time, a concerned community volunteer reached out to the office of Ald. Nicole Lee (11th Ward). Lee then promptly sent an email to the mayor relaying those concerns.

WTTW News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city for a copy of that Oct. 27 email and received a heavily redacted document in response: “Good Evening Mayor Johnson, Commissioner Knazze, Deputy Mayor Ponce De Leon, and Deputy Chief of staff Cristina (Pacione Zayas),” the email reads.

The next six paragraphs of the message were entirely redacted in the city’s records response to WTTW News.

But a nonprofit government accountability organization called the FOIA Bakery shared with WTTW News an unredacted version they say they obtained.

The redacted parts allege the shelter had insufficient bathrooms, exposed pipes with raw sewage, cockroach infestation, a possible outbreak of illness with many people being sick, insufficient provision of meals and water and poor and disrespectful treatment of migrants housed in the shelter by staff, according the email.  

A source with access to the shelter sent images to WTTW News that they say show migrants sleeping next to sewer covers inside the shelter. 

A follow-up email obtained from the FOIA Bakery appears to show Knazze asked staffers to find out about these complaints.

WTTW News also filed a FOIA request for Knazze’s response to Lee’s concerns, which was sent on Oct. 29. Once again, the document was nearly completely redacted.  The city’s FOIA officer cited exemptions under the law that allow them to withhold “Pre decisional, deliberative information.”

The city of Chicago returned heavily redacted emails to a WTTW News request. (WTTW News)The city of Chicago returned heavily redacted emails to a WTTW News request. (WTTW News)

Annie Gomberg, a lead organizer with the Police Station Response Team, says organizers have been warning administration officials about conditions and a lack of medical care at the shelter since it opened Oct. 2.

“I’ve told them time and again that medical care is not easy to come by, that when it is requested, they are told they are on their own or it’s not available to them,” Gomberg said.

WTTW News asked the Johnson administration if the mayor saw the Oct. 27 email and whether the issues outlined at the shelter were addressed, but received no response.

In a statement, Lee said she is focused on the living conditions of migrants. 

“As I have expressed in multiple engagements with the Mayor’s office, I remain concerned about the living conditions within the shelter at 22nd and Halsted. I join my colleagues in the City Council in urging the City to do more to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our new arrivals,” the statement reads. “Transparency around the conditions at these shelters is crucial, and we will continue to push for information and accountability in order to ensure individuals under our care are treated with the humanity that everyone deserves.”

In response to questions from about the site’s conditions, Favorite Staffing Vice President Keenan Driver responded with a statement.

“Favorite Staffing takes all staff complaints very seriously because we are concerned not only about the migrants, but about the safety and well-being of our own staff,” it reads.

During a Dec. 20 interview on WTTW News’ “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” the mayor repeatedly was asked if the conditions at the Halsted shelter were safe.

“Everything I’ve done is to ensure the safety of all of the migrants arriving here,” Johnson said. “The concerns people expressed; these aren't new concerns. Remember, there were 4,000 people living in police districts. There were ambulatory runs there.”

Gomberg says she doesn't believe the city is justified in keeping the information in those emails redacted.

“If it has to do with conditions and they don’t want that information public, I would think it’s going to prevent anything from getting better,” Gomberg said.

The shelter is now home to 2,547 people, according to the latest city data Wednesday. Facility issues continue to persist, according to people who have recently visited the shelter. 

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