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Migrants at O'Hare airport

Hundreds of asylum seekers take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Wednesday that stays at city-run shelters would be limited for the most part to 60 days.

Pat Nabong

Mayor Johnson is imposing a “tiered” 60-day limit on migrant stays in city shelters

Asylum-seekers will soon be subject to “a tiered 60-day shelter stay limit” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Wednesday, a move that follows in the footsteps of New York City and comes as thousands of migrants still sleep in police station lobbies because of a lack of sufficient shelter space.

Johnson also announced the city would begin to fine bus companies transporting migrants who don’t abide by the city’s curfew, specific landing zone locations or loading and unloading rules. Staff will also be increased at points of arrival “to facilitate connections to other destinations for individuals who do not wish to stay in Chicago.”

Details were scarce on the new shelter rules specifics, although Johnson’s administration said more information would be released Friday when the policy is set to go into effect. The move is the most hard-lined effort yet Johnson’s made to manage crowded shelters, as winter approaches and the city’s “winterized” base camps have yet to be constructed.

Johnson said the shelter limit will be paired with “robust case management and workforce access to move new arrivals through our system to self-sufficiency and economic stability.”

With winter on the horizon, Johnson did not immediately clarify if migrants will be asked to leave shelters if they have not found more permanent housing after 60 days, but stressed additional resources the city is slated to receive from the state and county will help the city more quickly expedite resettlement.

“Part of the investments that the state will be providing is to expand a more expedited process for them to be resettled,” Johnson said. “The 60-day notification, again with the expanded services on the back end, that will provide these families with a quicker and a faster way to be able to contribute to our economy. That is the purpose of this extension of our plan.”

Johnson’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said the new shelter-stay limits will coincide with efforts from the federal government to pilot clinics to help migrants apply for work authorizations. She declined to answer whether migrants would be allowed to reenter the city’s shelter system if they are required to leave after 60 days.

But, she also suggested that migrants who are close to getting housing won’t be immediately forced out of shelters at the 60-day cutoff.

“No one will be kicked out if they’re able to demonstrate that they have made progress with seeking permanent housing,” Pacione-Zayas told reporters Wednesday, but declined to expound on what those qualifications would be.

Andre Gordillo, the director of New Life Centers’ New Vecinos program that is helping asylum seekers settle into permanent housing, said he worries about whether there will be enough housing available come winter.

“If a person’s 60 days is up February 1st, is there going to be housing available for them?,” Gordillo said. “It’s not the most ideal time, I think, to make the announcement knowing that winter’s coming and folks don’t move normally when it’s 20 degrees out and a few inches of snow on the ground.”

Earlier this summer, migrants previously told WBEZ they had stayed in city shelters for over eight months as they waited for limited spots for more permanent housing.

Gordillo’s team has been able to help about 1,500 households move into housing from shelters in the last six months, with about 25 households moved every weekday. Gordillo said on average, migrants have been in city shelters for about two to three months before they have been able to move into housing with the help of a state-administered rental assistance program of six months.

“It’s a little aggressive,” Gordillo said of the 60-day timeline compared to the monthslong stays migrants have experienced in shelters. “But again, I think it’s necessary. The city and so many of us are in a tight spot and something needs to be done to continue to try to put pressure on state and federal leaders to help us out.”

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday his administration is committing $160 million to help house and resettle migrants in Chicago, but the state rental assistance will soon be reduced. The six-month rental assistance program will now be capped at three months of rent “which will allow all current shelter residents to access the program,” a news release said. Meanwhile, for all new shelter residents the rental assistance will no longer be available, but other housing assistance will be provided.

The crackdown on shelter stays comes after Pacione-Zayas recently traveled to New York City to tour their operations supporting the arrival of migrants.

New York City announced last month migrant families staying in shelters must leave after 60 days — and would have to reapply for shelter. About 1,500 migrant families with children living in homeless shelters have been notified they have 60 days to leave or reapply for housing, Gothamist reported Wednesday. Earlier this week, New York also expanded the pool of single adult migrants that must leave shelters within 30 days, Gothamist reported.

New York has received over 126,700 migrants since last spring compared to the over 21,000 that have arrived in Chicago since August of last year. In Chicago, there are currently 12,281 migrants in 25 city shelters, with 1,846 waiting across police stations and O’Hare airport for a spot, according to city figures.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has taken a more hardline stance saying the “issue will destroy New York City.” In a recent trip to Latin America, Adams tried to dissuade migrants from coming to his city.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s administration has been emphatic that Chicago will stand by its welcoming city name and will not turn migrants away. It’s a point he reiterated Wednesday even as he declined to provide specifics on the new shelter policies.

“We’re putting some restrictions, right, and some boundaries and parameters in place. But the ultimate goal is to make sure that these families are treated with dignity,” Johnson said Wednesday, later adding: “We will always be a welcoming city and a sanctuary city.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, said with thousands of people still sleeping in police stations and the weather changing quickly, Johnson’s announcement conveyed “that at least the city understands the urgency.”

“And we want to make sure that state and federal partners are also understanding and acting in the urgency of safely [resettling] asylum seekers, just as the federal government did with the Ukrainian refugees.”

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel contributed to this story.

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