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Migrants waiting in line

Migrants stand in line to receive food from the nonprofit Chi-Care Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Chicago. Some Chicago City Council members want Mayor Brandon Johnson to rescind an order to limit shelter stays for migrants to 60 days.

Erin Hooley

Nearly a third of the Chicago City Council urged the mayor to rescind 60-day migrant shelter stay limits

Almost a third of the City Council urged Mayor Brandon Johnson Thursday to rescind a policy that will boot thousands of migrants from city shelters next month, arguing “the city should not be in the business of handing out eviction notices.”

In a letter sent to Johnson, a contingent of 16 alderpersons cast the city’s 60-day limit on shelter stays as a short-sighted decision in the face of barriers that have continued to hamper migrants’ efforts to find stable housing. The city “has so far shown itself unable” to stem the flow of buses sending migrants to Chicago or quickly help migrants apply for work permits and find housing, alderpersons wrote.

“To stand by the decision to impose 60-day limits on shelters without addressing these systemic issues leaves new arrivals without options for housing or shelter,” the letter read. “This situation simply should not be acceptable.”

In a statement, a Johnson spokesman said 3,798 people utilized “resettlement services” and exited shelter since the 60-day deadlines were first announced last year. The city said it expects to see the pace of exits accelerate after service providers aiding in the resettlement process were expanded earlier this month to all shelters – rather than just 14.

“We continue to evaluate the 60-day policy and will provide updates as the situation develops,” the statement read. “Our plan remains providing dignified care and basic support services for asylum seekers to aid them on the aforementioned path to self-sufficiency and independence, while also being fiscally responsible and fulfilling fiduciary responsibilities to the people of the City of Chicago.”

Johnson has pushed back the eviction deadline twice since announcing the policy in November. It was first set to be enforced on Jan. 16, but was pushed back to Jan. 22 amid a cold snap that saw sub-zero temperatures. The current deadline is now Feb. 1, when nearly 2,000 migrants are required to leave city shelters and request a new spot if they haven’t found housing.

“Some of the new arrivals are confused, because they’ve gotten eviction notices, but the dates keep moving,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

“We believe a 60-day policy isn’t the way to go forward, that it actually leads to potentially more homelessness in the city. And we do need the state to step up and do its part, but we can’t have people on…the streets in the winter, ultimately living in viaducts, in tents in parks and on the streets.”

Alderpersons also called on the city to improve shelter conditions after receiving reports of inadequate conditions, like a lack of food leading to migrants “eating food from dumpsters” and the spread of infectious diseases. They also pressed the city to add more temporary and permanent housing for both migrants and long-time residents and appoint a chief homelessness officer — a new position Johnson created but has yet to fill.

The statement from Johnson’s spokesman said the city is still in the process of selecting a person to fill the position, and pointed to steps the city has taken to improve services, like expanding health screenings and food services.

After delays in the bidding process, Johnson’s administration announced Wednesday the selection of two local vendors who will provide “quality and culturally congruent meal service” in migrant shelters for up to $8 less than what the city was spending per person each day.

Thursday’s letter follows calls from volunteers aiding migrants for the city to rethink the eviction policy. The alderpersons signing the letter represent a wide swath from across the council’s political spectrum, and include some of Johnson’s progressive allies, others who have criticized Johnson for a lack of transparency about plans for base camps in their wards and alderpersons who have called for greater oversight on the city’s spending.

“It’s not about being for or against the mayor,” Vasquez said. “There’s a recognition of the reality of the situation more than the ideology of it.”

Johnson’s administration has said the deadline is necessary to make room in city shelters and expedite migrants’ path to self-sufficiency. A WBEZ analysis previously found a majority of migrants’ shelter stays have been longer than 60 days. The city has said it will make exceptions for extreme cold weather and migrants with a pending move-in date with a signed lease.

In New York, deadlines on shelter stays have been in place since last year, but officials last week granted some reprieves, allowing pregnant migrants in their third trimester and those with newborns to stay in city shelters until their child is six months old, the news outlet The City reported.

Earlier this month, city officials said 1,929 people received notices to leave shelters by Feb. 1, with another 961 having to leave the following day on Feb. 2.

The city says case managers are working to find housing for those facing the looming eviction, but hasn’t said how many are facing homelessness upon the deadline. As of Thursday, more than 14,300 people were staying across 28 city shelters, with a little over 180 staying largely at O’Hare Airport as they waited for a shelter bed, according to city figures.

The city previously said that those who do not find housing in time can go to the city’s Near West Side “Landing Zone” — a parking lot where migrants were previously sleeping on warming buses. Migrants have said they went without basic necessities like blankets or showers at the landing zone, which did not have any migrants awaiting shelter placement as of Thursday morning, according to city figures.

At a news conference Wednesday, Johnson would not confirm plans for Feb. 1, including whether the deadline would again be postponed, if migrants without housing would be relegated to warming buses, or what contingency plans are in the works if there aren’t enough warming buses to house them.

“We’re going to continue to review. This is an evolving crisis,” Johnson said.

Tensions once again flared this week between Johnson and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker after the governor said he was “deeply concerned” about the city’s plans to pause the opening of new shelters due to budget constraints and said the city has yet to communicate where new state-funded shelters should go. On Wednesday, Johnson pushed back, noting the state previously housed migrants in state-contracted hotels and suggested the state could look outside of Chicago.

“Shelters do not have to solely be set up and built in the city of Chicago. The state can do it wherever they want,” Johnson said. They “don’t need my permission to do that.”

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

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