Your NPR news source
Woman carries child outside of Pilsen shelter

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has extended the 60-day deadline for migrants to leave shelters to Feb. 1. His administration on Wednesday also defended how it handled complaints of unsanitary conditions at this migrant shelter in Pilsen, seen on Dec. 19, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez

Mayor Brandon Johnson pushes the deadline back again to move migrants out of shelters

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is once again pushing back its deadline for moving migrants out of shelters after they’ve stayed for 60 days, extending it to Feb. 1.

It’s the second time the deadline has been extended in the face of frigid temperatures. The Johnson administration initially delayed its 60-day limit on shelter stays to next week, with about 650 migrants expected to have to leave shelters then.

The move comes as the city continues to grapple with how to support nearly 15,000 migrants living in the city without permanent homes. Officials have also paused opening new shelters amid budgetary constraints.

On Wednesday, the Johnson administration also once again defended the actions it took to address unsanitary conditions at a Pilsen migrant shelter, including a cockroach infestation and exposed pipes with raw sewage, before a 5-year-old boy living there died and others were hospitalized.

Emails obtained Wednesday by WBEZ, and first reported by WTTW, reveal Johnson’s administration was first made aware of a cockroach infestation, leaking sewage, inadequate food and bathrooms, and a circulating illness at one of the city’s largest migrant shelters in late October.

Some of the issues “are new to us” top city officials wrote in an emailed response Oct. 29 to Ald. Nicole Lee, who raised the concerns.

Within a day, Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze outlined in an email the steps taken, such as weekly extermination services, and relocating cots away from sewage drains. In response to a complaint of inadequate bathrooms, Knazze wrote there were 33 toilets, 20 portable toilets and 22 shower stalls. For most concerns raised, Knazze said migrants should submit a formal complaint to address a myriad of shelter issues.

She also reiterated the city was making do with limited resources.

“I do understand from staff that some people who are coming from police stations leave because the large open space can be overwhelming — we are utilizing a warehouse,” Knazze wrote. “I also understand that some residents were told to expect hotel rooms, so being in a congregate space is jarring for them.”

In a statement to WBEZ, a Johnson spokesman reiterated the city “had actively been in the process of addressing the situation.” The mayor’s office provided the emails to WTTW Wednesday after the news organization prepared to take legal action over redacted versions supplied in response to an open records request.

In an interview with WBEZ, Lee said she did not follow up after Knazze’s lengthy email, and felt that the issues would be adequately addressed by the city.

“I’m glad that they responded quickly,” Lee said. “Having sent that to the mayor’s office, to the mayor, to other officials who I believed were in the best position to address this — with the responses that they sent back, I felt good enough that they were addressing those things,” Lee said.

But, despite actions outlined to Lee in detail by the city, it’s unclear how many of those complaints were specifically resolved.

Conditions at the shelter came under renewed scrutiny in December when 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero, who was living at the shelter with his family, became ill and died. City officials previously said he did not appear to have died from an infectious disease, and the cause of death is still pending according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. It’s unclear whether the conditions at the shelter caused his illness, or the illness of five others who were hospitalized, but advocates and migrants have told the Sun-Times health screenings and medical care have been lacking at the location.

Videos taken inside the shelter and shared with volunteers aiding migrants showed water dripping onto cots crowded side by side. The shelter is the city’s largest “by far,” according to Lee, who receives weekly reports on its population. As of last week, there were more than 2,500 living in the former warehouse.

Last year, the city’s health department also reported a large spike in chickenpox cases, with a majority of the nearly 400 cases among migrants living in congregate city shelters.

In response to WBEZ, the city outlined steps it has taken at shelters across the city to address health and safety concerns, but it’s unclear when exactly those steps were implemented. They include daily visits to each of the city’s 28 shelters, pending weather conflicts, and increased vaccinations for shelter residents. The city said it also deployed infectious disease prevention specialists to the Pilsen shelter “on an ongoing basis,” but didn’t say when those services began.

Lee told WBEZ she has not been made aware of any further issues — like cockroach infestations or sewage leakage — at the Pilsen shelter, though she still worries about food shortages, she said. The Johnson administration said in past emails the Chicago Food Depository and Carnitas Uruapan were providing three meals a day at the Pilsen shelter.

Since taking office, Johnson has explored numerous avenues for housing migrants, but the city has since changed its course several times. He started by working aggressively to open new brick-and-mortar shelters. But even with a slew of new shelters, the city could not keep up with the pace of new arrivals. Roughly 490 busloads of migrants have arrived in Chicago since Johnson took office, and he has repeatedly called on the federal and state government for additional assistance.

Ahead of the winter months, Johnson announced the city would contract with the controversial private security firm GardaWorld, to create mass, winterized base camps to supplement brick-and-mortar shelters. That plan seems to have fallen through completely, though, after the city struggled to find alderpersons willing to take on such a camp in their ward and environmental issues plagued the land for the potential sites.

At a news conference last week, Johnson said the city had not discussed revisiting the base camp plan. Johnson also confirmed the city has paused efforts to open new city-funded shelters, not having opened one since Dec. 22. In a statement, the city highlighted that it will work with the county and state to focus efforts on resettlement and outmigration, stating it needs to stay “within the confines of the FY2024 budget.”

The move comes as roughly 650 migrants face a looming Feb. 1 deadline to leave shelters under a recently-imposed cap on stays. The city delayed its new eviction deadline twice in the face of subzero temperatures.

Meanwhile, the city has leaned on an infusion of $160 million in state funding to help bolster its aid to migrants, from opening another brick-and-mortar shelter at a former CVS store in Little Village to providing resettlement services.

But still, more than 200 migrants are in need of a shelter bed, with another 14,659 living in 28 maxed-out city shelters, as of Wednesday.

The city has also lost insight as to when buses primarily sent from Texas will arrive. Increased penalties for bus companies has resulted in suburban municipalities passing restrictions of their own in the face of increased drop-offs outside of city borders, including chartered planes. A Texas bus operator filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the city’s restrictions discriminate against the companies and passengers.

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

The Latest
Chicago’s longest-serving alderman Ed Burke will face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month. WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel shares what prosecutors and Burke’s defense team are requesting from the judge overseeing the case.
How did this system come to be, and how has it persevered for more than two centuries?
Prosecutors want a judge to give Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member a 10-year prison sentence for corruption. But defense attorneys hope to sway the judge to spare him any prison time with stories of Ed Burke’s good deeds.
Nearly a quarter of Planned Parenthood patients coming from 41 states over the last two years, up from 3% to 5% of patients prior to the 2022 Dobbs decision.
Former President Barack Obama briefly spoke and shook hands with dozens to celebrate the latest milestone — the museum building hitting its full height of 225 feet.