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Migrants hang out outside of a migrant shelter at 344 N. Ogden Ave in West Loop, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Migrants stand outside a migrant shelter in the West Loop, in late June. At its peak, nearly 15,000 migrants were living across 28 migrant shelters in Chicago. But more than half those migrants have left since the city began rolling out shelter exits this spring. Many moved to other cities, others are now renting.

Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago’s migrant shelter population down by more than half since evictions began this spring

Migrants forced to leave a city shelter after 60 days can return, but many are reluctant. Some fear ending up on the streets because they can’t work.

Segundo Casa arrived in Chicago with his wife and two children last winter. On a recent afternoon, the 47–year-old Ecuadorian sat on the concrete steps near the West Loop shelter where the family lives.

Casa tends to his children, ages 4 and 9. They play on the sidewalk while he stares vacantly at cars zooming back and forth on Ogden Avenue.

“Every day, families are leaving,” said Casa in Spanish, adding his deadline to move out is at the end of the month. Casa is worried. Neither he nor his wife have a work permit. She is able to pick up cleaning jobs. They are barely saving enough to pay for the first month of rent, and without steady income, he doesn’t know how he would pay for the following months.

Many migrant families are facing the same dilemma as their time to exit the city shelter system approaches now that the school year is over. As of Friday, some 6,300 asylum-seekers were housed in 17 shelters run by the city and state. Since the city began rolling out its 60-day stay policy in the spring, more than 1,000 people have reached their limit. Of those, some 625 people have returned to the city’s migrant landing zone, where you can request to re-enter the shelter system, and the vast majority, 604 have gone back to a shelter.

Ending up on the streets is the grim reality migrants, like Casa, want to avoid.

Members of the Chicago City Council’s Latino caucus are asking Mayor Brandon Johnson to end the 60-day shelter stay policy and track the destination of those who reach their exit date.

A growing housing crisis

Since the start of the migrant humanitarian crisis in 2022, more than 43,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from Venezuela, have been bused and flown to Chicago by Republican governors in southern border states. City officials had to quickly figure out a housing plan. Newcomers were sent to live in hotels, police stations and many other temporary shelters. At its peak last winter, about 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers were temporarily housed in shelters.

The state of Illinois offered emergency rent assistance to eligible migrants, but many who arrived in shelter after mid-November no longer qualified. Organizations like Catholic Charities helped connect many migrants with apartments through that program.

Thousands of migrants who received state rental assistance are now paying their own bills. Some have work permits; if not, they are finding day gigs in construction or cleaning. But landing a permanent job without a work authorization is hard, especially for migrants with children and no one to watch them.

Housing advocates notice worrisome trends

“I see a lot of the migrants being taken advantage of,” said Javier Ruiz, an eviction prevention specialist at the Metropolitan Tenants Association. “For example, a landlord will take financial assistance. When the financial assistance is over, the landlord would pressure the family to leave, to get out or to find something new. The landlord will purposely not do repairs just so the family could leave.”

Ruiz said most migrants don’t know their rights and responsibilities as tenants. They often double up with families to help pay the rent but don’t tell the owner. The lack of communication can lead to frustration and even illegal evictions.

Gabriel Lopez, a migrant from Venezuela, almost got locked out from the three-bedroom apartment in Englewood he rents with a state voucher.

When the money ran out, Lopez wanted a new contract. He is employed and likes the place. His rent agreement initially listed four people. But he allowed a migrant couple with five kids to live there for a period of time. This couple can’t work legally and has struggled to find employment.

When the landlord learned more than 10 people lived in his apartment, he tried to lock them out and evict them without legal notice or a court order.

“He came in one day and started changing the locks,” Lopez said in Spanish. “I told him that he couldn’t do that. He then started moving my stuff out of the apartment and got really violent when I tried to stop him.”

Lopez’s roommates called the police and accused the landlord of getting violent while children were present. They also accuse him of using other tools, including a shovel and a machete to intimidate them.

“[The landlord] opened the door to one of the rooms where a 13-year-old was changing. He later grabbed her and pushed her out of the apartment. The little kids were crying,” Lopez said.

The landlord denies the allegations, but Lopez and his roommates filed a police report.

It’s hard to quantify how many migrants are facing illegal evictions or lockouts and how many end up in eviction court, but housing advocates say they expect to see an increase in evictions among the new arrivals.

“We anticipate that we will see more and more asylum applicants as they find themselves in eviction court because short-term rental assistance will end and work authorizations have not kicked in,” said Allen Hailey, of the Law Center for Better Housing, in an email.

Chris Amatore manages properties for 70 owners and also owns buildings in Chicago. Last winter, he let about 400 migrants stay in some of his properties for free and is now renting to about 600 asylum-seekers.

“[Landlords] just don’t want to do it. They want the guaranteed money from [federal housing vouchers], or they want someone who has a work history, a credit score,” Amatore said.

Amatore said he has encountered a lot of racist and misinformed ideas about migrants that aren’t true. When migrants can’t afford rent, Amatore said he offers them a maintenance or cleaning job to make up the difference.

But not all landlords have the financial means to do what Amatore does.

“Who wants to be in business and not make a profit?” said Bobbie Grayer, a landlord on the South Side. Grayer said she only wants to rent to asylum-seekers who have work permits or qualify for rent assistance. “It’s difficult for the homeowner because if they’re losing money, then they have to hire an attorney to assist them.”

Pitching a tent

In recent weeks, some migrant families have started pitching tents after facing evictions at a public park on the Northwest Side.

“I received the rent assistance and I lived in an apartment on the West Side for several months, but then I got kicked out because I couldn’t pay rent after the rent assistance ended,” said a single migrant mother of two from Venezuela who is now living in one of the tents with her two children.

The 32-year-old didn’t want to share her name because she fears her family back home will find out she is living on the streets. After getting evicted the first time last winter, she doubled up in a different apartment with some friends, also migrants, but they, too, got evicted. Unsure of where to go, she settled in the park where she spotted other tents. She’s been living there for nearly three weeks.

She said she often cries about her situation. She isn’t authorized to work in the U.S. Selling water on the street while her children are in school barely generates money.

She says most people in the park have been kind so far, but she is constantly worried someone is going to break in and harm them. When asked if going back to a migrant shelter is an option, she said in Spanish, “No. All I want is a job.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ.

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