City Releases Unredacted October Emails Detailing Unsanitary Migrant Shelter Conditions, Says Chicago Officials Were ‘Aware of Issues’

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office Wednesday afternoon responded to a Tuesday WTTW News report that members of his administration were made aware of concerns about unsanitary conditions at a migrant shelter in Pilsen and were working to address them weeks before a 5-year-old-boy fell ill at the shelter and later died at a hospital.

The city also reversed course and released a series of previously redacted emails that outline when the mayor and top staff members were made aware of the issues and what exactly those concerns were.

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The email release comes after a WTTW News Freedom of Information Act request for the documents was met with a response containing nearly completely redacted emails. WTTW News alerted the city it was preparing a legal challenge to remove those redactions.

The emails were sent at the end of October, after the shelter at 2241 S. Halsted St. opened earlier that month. The shelter was put under further scrutiny in December after 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero fell ill and later died at an area hospital. Several other residents were hospitalized with illnesses in the days after the boy’s Dec. 17, 2023, death.

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.

On Oct. 28, nearly two months before Martinez Rivero’s death, Ald. Nicole Lee (11th Ward) sent an email to Johnson and top administration officials warning of the alleged conditions at the shelter. WTTW News was also made aware of a response email from City Department of Family and Support Services Brandie Knazze, outlining her responses to Lee’s concerns.

The mayor’s administration cited exceptions under state law that allow withholding of information for “pre-decisional, deliberative information,” as reasons for the original redactions.

On Wednesday, the city reversed course, sending WTTW News the requested email records unredacted, including the initial Oct. 28 email from Lee warning of allegations of “insufficient bathrooms,” “exposed pipes with raw sewage,” “insect (cockroach) infestation,” “possible outbreak of illness with many people being sick,” “insufficient provision of meals and water,” and “poor and disrespectful treatment of migrants housed in shelter by staff.”

In a now unredacted Oct. 29 response from Knazze, the commissioner says she had a chance to connect with her staff and provided a response to each of Lee’s concerns about the shelter that, according to records, is currently housing 2,547 migrants.

Read the full email chain below.

The email also addresses concerns about panhandling taking place outside of the shelter.

“Panhandling is common at most of our shelter sites as families are looking for ways to make money and sustain themselves,” Knazze said in the email.

Wednesday’s statement from a spokesperson in the mayor’s office acknowledges that the administration knew about the alleged problems.

“The City was aware of issues raised regarding conditions at the shelter at 2241 S. Halsted and had actively been in the process of addressing the situation,” the statement reads. “While the City recognizes that there is still more work to be done to improve the quality of temporary housing for the nearly 15,000 new arrivals in 28 active shelters, we have also taken concrete action to address any and all concerns related to conditions at City-run shelters as they have arisen.”

The statement goes on to say that the administration made structural changes to the flooring, added bathrooms, remediated sewer pipes, relocated sleeping cots to address sanitary concerns and continued weekly extermination services.

The statement also says that the Chicago Department of Public Health provides on-site consultation to newly opening shelters and ongoing infection control guidance, as well as working with providers to respond to reports of infectious diseases.

Despite the stated efforts in late October, complaints about unsanitary and overcrowded conditions from migrants and the volunteers serving them have persisted to the present day. It is not clear from the records whether or not most or all of the problems were fixed.

In a statement sent to WTTW News on Tuesday, Lee indicated they were not and that the mayor’s office had been less than transparent about their efforts.

“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,” the statement reads. “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. 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.”

At an unrelated event Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker was asked to respond to WTTW News’ original story on the emails to Johnson and other staffers.

“I did see the report, I haven’t heard their response to it,” Pritzker said. “I think we all understand and the mayor and his administration understand that we are, in very difficult circumstances, trying to keep people safe in shelters as we’re moving on to more permanent housing and jobs.”

Note: This article was published Jan.17, 2024, and updated with video Jan. 18, 2024.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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