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Asylum seeker sets up new bed

Joseph, 47, sets up a bed frame in his new, basement apartment in a North Side neighborhood on June 14, 2023. Joseph fled political upheaval in his native Nicaragua and was able to move out of a city shelter and into an apartment with the help of a state-administered rental assistance program for asylum seekers.

Tessa Weinberg

In a sanctuary city for migrants, the long, grueling wait for an apartment

After nearly nine months bouncing between crowded city shelters with little privacy, Nicaraguan asylum-seekers Joseph and Jean Martin got the keys to an apartment of their own last Wednesday.

The basement apartment faces a tree-lined residential street in a North Side neighborhood that the couple only visited once before. They had a few bags of clothing and possessions when they arrived, but shortly after moving in, a volunteer knocked on their door to deliver a welcome basket with sheets and household items.

“It’s not easy to be in a shelter,” said Jean Martin, who asked her full name not be used for her safety. “I’m home finally. I have a place where I can call home.”

The couple were able to sign a lease for their first Chicago apartment with the financial help of a state-administered rental assistance program for asylum-seekers. The aid — which can last for up to six months — is a lifeline for recent arrivals who lack authorization to legally work in the U.S.

But the wait for an apartment is long. Currently, priority goes to asylum seekers who have been housed in city shelters longer than eight months, a city spokeswoman said.

Affordable housing and willing landlords are in short supply. Social service agencies are also overstretched, trying to keep up with the fast clip of new arrivals that only continues to grow. And nonprofits are racing to keep up, adding staff and expanding their volunteer networks to fill in city services’ gaps — from helping new arrivals apply for rental aid and securing apartments to finding furniture that makes these homes livable.

All of this comes as Chicago faces increasing pressure to create a more permanent and sustainable infrastructure to help the thousands of migrants who have arrived since August of last year. The more people the city can move out of police stations and into shelters — and then more quickly into permanent housing — the more room there will be for the influx of migrants expected to continue.

Some nonprofits stepping up to meet the demand say a broader conversation needs to be had about how to devote resources toward creating a permanent infrastructure for asylum seekers.

“What we are all hitting up against is there are not enough resources to support emergency rental assistance for all of the individuals that are coming into Chicago right now,” said Ami Novoryta, chief program officer at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which is working with the city and state to conduct housing assessments.

Jean Martin is grateful for the support, but she doesn’t want to be a burden.

“We didn’t come here to depend off the government,” Jean Martin said as she set up her new place last week. “I’m very thankful that they are giving us the opportunity to help us to get on our feet. And that’s the idea: to grow, and keep working…and keep being productive for the country.”

Men moving furniture

Nate Hudson, a driver with Chicago Furniture Bank, unloads a dresser for a pair of asylum seekers who are moving into an apartment in a North Side neighborhood on June 14, 2023.

Tessa Weinberg

Moving asylum seekers a long process

Joseph, 47, and Jean Martin, 43, are among the more than 800 households who have moved into more permanent housing with the help of a rental assistance program. That effort began in late November of last year when initial waves of asylum seekers bused to Illinois were temporarily staying in state-contracted hotels.

Since the program’s launch, the Illinois Housing Development Authority has received 1,182 applications for rental assistance as of last Monday — with a little more than 70% coming from asylum seekers who had been staying in the hotels in the fall.

In total, $6.8 million in aid has been disbursed to 885 applicants — and all have been unemployed, according to IHDA figures.

At the Inn of Chicago, where city funds are focused, 260 households have completed housing assessments, 139 signed leases and 39 have moved into permanent housing as of June 10, a city spokeswoman said.

But hundreds more wait. About 260 families who have been living at the Inn of Chicago as of April are eligible for rental assistance through city funding, and another 400 individuals who arrived between Aug. 31 and Oct. 31 of last year are eligible through state funding, a city spokeswoman said.

It’s already difficult for most renters to find an apartment in Chicago’s tight rental market. Finding landlords to take in migrants and asylum seekers, and potentially overlook a lack of credit scores and rental history, can be even harder.

“The new arrivals that we’re working with, you know they just got to the United States. So they don’t have any of that,” said Luz Maria Cortez, a community assistance program manager for La Casa Norte, one of the organizations working with city shelters to help asylum seekers apply for rental assistance. “So more than 90% of the time, I would say that they’re getting denied for those apartments,” from large property management companies.

Nonprofit organizations assisting asylum seekers said they’re often looking for housing in walkable, Spanish-speaking communities. But they’re limited by a dearth of affordable housing. The amount of monthly rent that will be covered by the program is ultimately set by federal caps that take into account a unit’s size and ZIP code.

“Housing’s short all over town,” said Andre Gordillo, the director of New Life Centers’ southwest border arrival program that is helping asylum seekers settle into permanent housing. “We’re moving people into Will County because that’s more affordable.”

Landlords are also taking on risk by agreeing to lease to a tenant whose income may not be secure after the rental assistance runs out.

The assistance is capped at six months — with three months and a move-in fee initially covered, and the option of a three-month renewal.

That timeline doesn’t line up with the lengthy delays that are often experienced from a backlogged immigration system. Asylum seekers aren’t eligible to apply for a work permit until about five months after they have applied for asylum.

Being granted a work permit, “in theory can come as soon as 30 days after that, but in reality often takes longer than that,” said Peter Zigterman, the immigrant and family services director for World Relief Chicago, a refugee resettlement agency that helped asylum seekers apply for rental assistance in the fall.

“Which means best case scenario: Let’s say they’re able to apply for asylum within a few months after arriving, you’re still talking nine months to a year,” he said. “And that’s in a very optimistic timeline till someone gets work authorization.”

Without legal authorization to work in the U.S., asylum seekers struggle to earn income.

It’s a hurdle Jean Martin has already run into. In Nicaragua, she was a lawyer. In the U.S., when she has found intermittent work, the pay isn’t fair, she says.

When she did secure a job as a caregiver, it was short-lived. Her employer started asking her for a work permit she doesn’t yet have.

“I made it for six weeks,” Jean Martin said, “but I had to leave.”

The difficult search for landlords and apartments

In the meantime, Chicago nonprofits are working to build the list of landlords willing to take in the refugees. There are currently about 590 landlords participating in the rental assistance program, said Andrew Fields, an Illinois Housing Development Authority spokesman.

Catholic Charities of Chicago helped resettle more than 700 households staying in hotels from the fall, and more recently negotiated almost 300 leases, with about 100 of those households having moved in, Novoryta said. She said it’s been a “beautiful surprise” to see the hundreds of landlords who have offered up their rentals.

“Chicago is a welcoming city. It is a sanctuary city. And it’s part of our history over the last century to welcome new arrivals,” Novoryta said. “Right now, the scale is extraordinary. But I think for a lot of the landlords, this probably isn’t their first time working with tenants who have recently arrived in our city.”

But Karina Ayala-Bermejo, the president and CEO of the Instituto del Progreso Latino and a member of the Illinois Latino Agenda, worries “we will soon be facing a housing exodus” if asylum seekers struggle to pay their rent if work permits are delayed.

Some advocates say that could be avoided with creative solutions. For example, rather than leases being entered into directly by an asylum seeker, Ayala-Bermejo is proposing nonprofits themselves be the lessees. Ayala-Bermejo said the strategy can ease landlords’ concerns, while nonprofits assume some of the risk and financial liability and continue to work with asylum seekers to provide wraparound services.

Ayala-Bermejo said she’s had preliminary discussions with lenders, other nonprofits and the city, including with members of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration, about taking “the leap of faith” to pursue a novel approach that she hopes could be a viable long-term solution.

“We’re at a fork in the road of what we need to do, and hoping not to lose all the investments made and all the progress made,” Ayala-Bermejo said. “I think that the good will only goes so far when you’re speaking of longer-term solutions.”

Furniture loaded into a truck

Movers with New Life Centers and Chicago Furniture bank load a delivery truck with furniture at Chicago Furniture Bank’s warehouse in Brighton Park on June 14, 2023. The two nonprofits have been partnering to deliver used furniture to asylum seekers who are moving out of city shelters and into apartments.

Tessa Weinberg

Nonprofits have ramped up staffing to meet the relentless pace, but they say they’re stretched thin.

Since May, New Life Centers has added more than 15 new hires to support its efforts moving dozens of households each week. Matt DeMateo, the executive director of New Life Centers, said he’s urging faith communities to offer their buildings as alternatives where asylum seekers could stay, rather than police stations, and proposing they sponsor rent for an asylum seeker for a year if possible.

Then there’s helping asylum seekers settle into these homes, even if temporary.

Chicago Furniture Bank, a nonprofit which accepts donated furniture and places it with those in need, furnished about 4,200 homes last year. This year, the organization is on pace to furnish even more, said Kevin Murphy, the director of strategic initiatives. Soon the nonprofit will have to fundraise to buy two more trucks and a sprinter van to add to its fleet.

Murphy said the influx of asylum seekers, and Chicago’s emergency-like approach to managing it, is putting the city’s moniker as a welcoming city to the test.

“If the city and our corporate infrastructure don’t develop true resources and coalitions to support the least and the lowest among us, it feels like we’re going to keep running into these just reactionary types of situations,” Murphy said. “And we’re using everyday, low-income Chicagoans as kind of the testing pool for that, so it’s just not the best way to do things.”

How long can help last?

It’s unclear when funding for rental assistance will run out.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority is currently funding rental assistance payments through federal American Rescue Plan dollars. There is currently no projected end date to the program, Fields said, but the federal funds must be spent by the end of September 2025.

Rental assistance is available to asylum seekers who entered the city’s care before April 1, and meet income requirements, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services said, with updates for fiscal year 2024 underway. Chicago’s Department of Housing contributed $4 million of its emergency rental assistance funding toward aiding resettlement of asylum seekers

“We do not anticipate any additional… emergency rental assistance funds being replenished and so other solutions will be needed,” Department of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara told alderpersons at a City Council committee hearing in April.

Last week, Chicago was awarded another $10.5 million and Illinois $19.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offset costs of supporting asylum seekers.

And the City Council last month approved $51 million in surplus funds to support staffing, food and other resources for asylum seekers. Another $42.5 million included in the recently-signed Illinois state budget is poised to go toward assisting asylum-seekers with shelter, legal representation, translation services and more — with $25.5 million of that slated for municipalities and the remaining $17 million toward counties.

Asked late last month whether any of $51 million in surplus funds approved by the City Council would go toward direct rental assistance for asylum seekers, Johnson, Chicago’s mayor, said that while it is a need, “there has not been an absolute determination of how all of those resources will be dispersed.”

Asylum seeker Jean Martin knows this rental assistance won’t last forever. Asked what she’s most looking forward to, she quickly says: “To work, first of all.”

Reuniting with her kids follows in the same breath. She shows off a photo of her smiling children, one who is 20 years old and two 7-year-old twins, who are still with Jean Martin’s parents in Nicaragua. Jean Martin and Joseph asked for a larger apartment in hopes of bringing her sons and his two kids to the U.S.

For now, the bedroom sits empty, but she’s excited to show it to them over the phone when they get out of class for the day. She already knows what they’ll say.

“‘Mommy, I want to go. Since you have a home now, you are not in a shelter, we could go now?’” Jean Martin imagines. “Yeah, they would be very happy to be here.”

For now, she reminds herself of something she’s had nearly a year to practice: patience.

Tessa Weinberg covers city politics and government for WBEZ.

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