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Collection of candles for a child migrant who died

Visitors to a vigil on Wednesday left flowers and candles for Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero, a 5-year-old boy who fell sick at a Pilsen migrant shelter and died Sunday. The shelter houses more than 2,300 people, more than half minors, and residents say conditions are unsanitary.

Emmanuel Camarillo

Calls for more medical resources follow 5-year-old Pilsen shelter resident’s death

Mariangel Galeno’s 4-year-old daughter Isabella and her “amiguito” — Spanish for little friend — used to run around the halls of a migrant shelter in Pilsen together.

Wednesday evening, Isabella held an electric candle in her small hands to honor the memory of that friend, 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero, who died Sunday after becoming ill at the crowded shelter near Cermak Road and Halsted Street.

“He was a beautiful boy, he was always happy, he was just such a wonderful boy,” said Galeno, 30.

Hundreds joined Galeno and her daughter at a vigil for Jean Carlos outside the shelter. The vigil was organized by a network of volunteers who assist new arrivals in the city.

Volunteers said Jean Carlos’ death was preventable and demanded the city provide more medical resources for asylum-seekers as well as improve overall conditions at shelters.

“We are standing here tonight in total solidarity with the migrants, to say we love you, we see you, we do not stand for this, you are our fellow human beings and you deserve better,” Britt Hodgdon, a volunteer and social worker, told reporters.

“We want to hear the mayor’s office say they are going to create a grievance process” to help asylum-seekers file complaints about unsafe conditions, she said. “We want medical advocacy and psycho-education done so people understand what constitutes an emergency and what can be done.”

Visitors left flowers and placed lit candles at a memorial for the boy, which grew as more people stopped by with gifts. Volunteers gathered winter clothes and shared them with migrants.

According to the city, on the day the boy died, the Martinez family left the shelter for part of the morning and early afternoon, returning at 2:32 p.m., the statement said.

About 13 minutes later, shelter staff “witnessed a medical emergency and immediately responded by calling 911, after which staff began administering first aid to the child,” including CPR, the city said in its statement. He was pronounced dead at Comer Children’s Hospital.

A law enforcement source previously told the Sun-Times the boy was bleeding from the nose and mouth, had a fever of more than 100 degrees and had had diarrhea for days. Jean Carlos’ family had arrived in Chicago more than two weeks before he died.

Hodgdon said volunteers shared their concerns about medical protocols for asylum-seekers at migrant shelters in the city with the mayor’s office in June. She said staff at the shelter weren’t prepared to handle Jean Carlos’ emergency.

“The mayor’s office nodded along and said we hear you,” Hodgdon said. “We’re here six months later for the preventable death of a 5-year-old child because the Favorite [Healthcare] Staffing people who are inside the building next to us didn’t know how to respond to a medical situation.”

Favorite Healthcare Staffing is a Kansas-based contractor the city has awarded close to $100 million to run shelters since September 2022, shortly after the first buses carrying migrants began arriving.

Migrants at the shelter, like Galeno, say some illnesses are spreading due to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The shelter — by far the largest in Chicago — holds up to 2,300 people. More than half are minors.

Videos shared with reporters taken inside the shelter showed visibly sick children and water leaking through the ceiling onto cots.

Four more children were taken to hospitals with illnesses on Monday, but city officials said those cases were not related to Jean Carlos’ death.

“The child does not appear to have died from an infectious disease, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health, and there is no evidence of an outbreak at the shelter,” Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

Galeno is now worried that her daughter will become sick.

“We want to be relocated, we want to be well, for our kids to have some kind of stability,” said Galeno, who is from Chile and has stayed at the shelter for just over three weeks after arriving on a bus from Texas.

Tim Noonan, a 19th Ward mutual aid volunteer who assisted migrants at the Morgan Park police station, said he doesn’t want Jean Carlos’ death to become another statistic, and he hopes the city is spurred to take action.

“What they should have done all along was provide decent housing and shelters,” Noonan said. “We’re not treating people that have come here as people — we’re treating them as numbers.”

Contributing: Michael Loria

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