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migrant at Chicago City Life Center

Carolina Gonzalez of Venezuela carries supplies into the Chicago City Life Center Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. Chicago now limits stays at city-run shelters to 60 days, but a WBEZ analysis shows that most migrants have stayed in shelters longer.

Erin Hooley

As the 60-day shelter stay limit looms, a WBEZ analysis reveals most migrants stay longer

Thousands of migrants who lived in city shelters have stayed longer than 60 days — the length of a looming city deadline that will start affecting the first wave of migrants next month.

A WBEZ analysis of the lengths of their shelter stays finds that roughly 7 in 10 have stayed longer than 60 days, and that an average stay was 76 days for migrants who had exited shelter before Nov. 1.

Service providers and volunteers who have been assisting asylum-seekers said the figures confirm what they have seen on the ground, and are likely even an underestimate. But the data underscores their fears that the city’s 60-day limit will displace families and, for some, leave them with no place to stay.

Over the weekend, the city cleared police districts from housing migrants, pushing the number of asylum-seekers across 27 city shelters to nearly 14,000. By Monday morning, another 20 migrants were back at police stations, in addition to another roughly 220 staying across O’Hare and Midway airports. Migrants and volunteers have described “horrible” living conditions at shelters, and on Sunday a 5-year-old boy staying at a crowded Pilsen migrant shelter died after becoming ill, the Sun-Times reported.

The first group of migrants impacted by the new policy will have to leave shelters next month, and request a new spot if they haven’t found housing. Exceptions will be made in some extenuating circumstances. The policy represents the city’s most hard line limit on aid for migrants, and coincides with the state also reducing the help of rental assistance.

City officials have said the 60-day limit is necessary in order to make room for migrants who continue to arrive each week and to expedite their path to “self sufficiency.”

But Erika Villegas, a volunteer aiding migrants living in police stations and airports, said there is a disconnect between the city’s decisions and the reality of what migrant families are experiencing.

“The city wants people to be independent, and people want to become independent. But if there is no true process, and no real process, then how is that expected?” Villegas said. “We’re playing with people’s lives and their stability after they’ve been through such trauma and displacement, we’re displacing them again.”

The data obtained from the Department of Family and Support Services by WBEZ through an open records request included the entry and exit dates of shelter stays for migrants as of Nov. 1 — providing a snapshot of shelter stays since buses were first sent to the city more than 15 months ago. The department’s data is not comprehensive — WBEZ excluded roughly 4% of records received from DFSS due to missing or erroneous entry or exit dates, ultimately analyzing a total of 21,226 shelter stay records. The data does not include stays from shelters that were previously used by the city but have since been closed as of November.

WBEZ calculated the average length of stay based on records that had an exit date any time prior to Nov. 1. However, a majority of migrants represented in the data — 57% — had no exit date, meaning they had not yet left a shelter, according to DFSS. WBEZ found that 71% of shelter stays — roughly 7 in 10 — have been longer than 60 days for migrants who had arrived between Sept. 1, 2022 and Sept. 2, 2023, regardless of if they had exited or were still in shelter.

The shortest stays were those who entered and exited a shelter on the same day, while the longest stay was 393 days. About 50 people who have been in city shelters since last year will be among the first group who must leave next month under the 60-day rule.

Migrant families have been shuffled between shelters and often did not experience a linear process of going from a police station to a city shelter to permanent housing. Volunteers said they suspect the average length of stay is likely even longer than 76 days when migrants’ stays across multiple shelters are taken into account and if the city data included stays at since-closed shelters.

“Especially with going in and out of them, returning to police districts, going out on their own, finding a temporary living situation that doesn’t work out, and then they have to come back — all of that is going to change that picture,” said Annie Gomberg, a Police Station Response Team volunteer who has been helping migrants since April.

The 60-day policy follows in the footsteps of other cities such as New York. A spokesman for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said city agencies reviewed client and financial data when crafting the 60-day limit to balance the need to provide enough time for people to reach self-sufficiency and provide accommodations to the people who continued to arrive daily to police stations that were in need of a bed.

“The 60-day notice allows new arrivals time to get connected to resources while creating room for incoming new arrivals at city shelters,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “The City is providing 60-day notices and prioritizing connecting new arrivals to additional resources such as work authorizations, housing assistance, health care, and schools to support the transition from shelter to more stable housing.”

Brandon Johnson

Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks during a presser announcing the mobilization of churches and church leaders to house migrants, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Johnson’s administration says the 60-day limit on shelter stays is necessary to make room for more migrants arriving.

Anthony Vazquez

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the 60-day limit may exacerbate issues, “because if you’ve got that many people that are past 60 days, and they’re not able to find another place to live, they’re going to be on the streets.”

“If you set your guidelines based on what the data is and establish a baseline, then you can work towards improvement,” Vasquez said. “If you just pick a random, arbitrary number without looking at the data, it could potentially lead to larger problems.”

‘The clock’s ticking’

Stress and anxiety abound for both asylum-seekers and volunteers.

Andre Gordillo, the director of the New Vecinos program at New Life Centers that is working with the city and state to help asylum seekers move into permanent housing, said his team is constantly asked about housing options as migrants race against the 60-day deadline. He has suggested people even consider looking outside of state lines to places such as Indiana. Even nearby suburbs that opened their doors to house migrants are now requiring migrants move out.

“Throw a wider net because as the clock’s ticking and you have to find something sooner, you’re going to have to look to other options,” Gordillo said. “I just hope that as it gets colder our new neighbors are still able to find apartments for rent.”

But financial help to pay for an apartment is also being reduced. Asylum-seekers newly entering city shelters are no longer eligible for a rental subsidy program, which covers the cost of monthly rent and a move-in fee.

“That is so unfair for families that have been at police stations for three or four or five, six months,” Villegas said. “That for no fault of their own they are being disqualified for being at a police station that they never asked to be at.”

Six months of total rental assistance has been halved to three months for those who were in shelter — which will allow the Illinois Department of Human Services to serve approximately 5,700 more households and cover the roughly 12,000 people who were living in shelters when the policy was announced, an IDHS spokeswoman previously said.

This summer, asylum-seekers told WBEZ they had lived in city shelters for over eight months as they waited for permanent housing with the help of rental assistance. The rental assistance application itself also takes time to complete. An IDHS spokeswoman said it can take up to seven business days to approve an application, and an additional 15 business days for utilities to be set up.

A spokeswoman for Gov. JB Pritzker said the state is “out of money to continue funding additional emergency rental assistance.” She stressed $56 million has been allocated from the state toward rental assistance, and noted $65 million in recently-announced state funding is going toward increasing the number of caseworkers assisting asylum-seekers.

“As we have invested additional resources, we’ve seen strong engagement from asylum seekers in working with case managers and available resources to move to more permanent housing,” Pritzker’s spokeswoman said, later adding: “We believe that if we can build shelter capacity at the same time we increase case work, we will be able to help asylum seekers resettle more quickly.”

As of Dec. 11, more than 3,600 households have received rental assistance through the program with over $27.7 million doled out, an Illinois Housing Development Authority spokesman said.

‘For some folks, it will be a merry-go-round’

Meanwhile, Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, whose ward includes a former CVS store that is slated to open as a migrant shelter, said he’s confident the length of migrants’ shelter stays will decrease. New Life Centers is being contracted by the state to provide on-the-ground support at the shelter.

“The fact is, is that we need these numbers to decrease and this is the principal reason why we don’t have migrants in police stations right now,” Rodriguez said. “We’re getting better at supporting people to exit the system.”

Whether average shelter stays have decreased over time is difficult to assess because only about a year’s worth of data is available. However, WBEZ grouped shelter stays by the month migrants entered shelter, from Sept. 2022 through Sept. 2023, and found the majority of their stays for each group of shelter arrivals, with the exception of migrants who entered shelter in Sept. 2022, have been longer than 60 days.

If housing hasn’t been secured by the time a migrant’s shelter stay is up, they will have to give up their spot and return to the city’s landing zone for new arrivals and put in another request for shelter. Only under extenuating circumstances, such as a medical crisis, extreme cold weather or a pending move-in date with a signed lease, will extensions be granted, according to the city.

It’s difficult to discern how the 60-day deadline may impact the city’s overall homeless services system, said Sam Paler-Ponce, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ interim associate director of policy, who stressed that long-term housing solutions are ultimately needed.

“It looks like the new arrival system and the Chicago homeless services system have been kind of separate,” Paler-Ponce. “And at the 60-day mark, we might start to see these populations overlap quite a bit.”

Volunteers and advocates are fearful the policy will disrupt the modicum of stability asylum-seekers may have achieved.

“I think that for some folks, it will be a merry-go-round. They will leave the shelter. They will return to the landing zone,” Gomberg said. “And it will be kind of an ironic situation where they will be then right back into another shelter for another 60 days, pulling their kids out of school, destabilizing their work situation. Whatever they may have built will be disrupted.”

Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ.

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