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Alfonso Carvajal + Chicago migrant

Alfonso Carvajal rides around his bike in Chicago looking for permanent housing so his family can leave the city-run shelter.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad

Chicago migrants are under pressure as the deadline to find permanent housing looms

On most mornings, Alfonso Carvajal grabs his bike and ventures out into unfamiliar parts of Chicago in search of apartments to rent. He gets lost. He gets cold. He gets frustrated.

“I get on my bike and ride as far as my strength allows,” Carvajal, 60, said in Spanish. “There are times when I say ‘Where am I? What’s this area called? How do I get back?’”

Carvajal, his wife and two children trekked here from Venezuela. The journey left them with no money and just a few belongings. After spending months walking through the treacherous Darien Gap jungle and hitchhiking through Central America to get to the United States, not knowing Chicago streets and neighborhoods is not the biggest concern. The pressure to secure a safe, affordable place to live is.

“Finding housing is the most important thing for us right now,” Carvajal said. “We can’t just finish our time in the shelter and be thrown out on the streets. It’s humiliating, an entire family out on the streets.”

Since August, the family has been staying in one of the city’s shelters for migrants in Lake View on the North Side. They are among the thousands of migrants expected to be evicted from shelters soon after March 16. As of Monday, city officials said there are 13,442 residents in 28 active shelters.

As that deadline looms, Carvajal wrestles with the long list of obstacles that have come up during the apartment search process. He doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have a work permit, a credit history or a bank account.

Carvajal started an aggressive apartment search last fall. On average he calls three numbers each day, but when he learns about security deposits and application fees, he gets discouraged. He doesn’t even apply to those, instead he keeps looking.

“I write down the numbers of any ‘For Rent’ sign. If I still have a balance on my phone, I call,” Carvajal said.

His family is among many in shelters who still qualify for a three-month rental assistance voucher through a state government program. But it can take weeks to process those applications.

“We had many people in shelters who had no one assigned to a shelter to process the vouchers,” said Lydia Wong, a volunteer with ChiWelcome, a grassroots organization that supports migrants. She said even when migrants find landlords and are ready to sign a lease, they have to wait.

Chicago officials have said migrants who are evicted and don’t have a place to stay will go back to the city’s landing zone at 800 S. Desplaines St., where newly arrived migrants first go to place a new shelter request and wait until a bed is available.

The city hasn’t laid out a concrete plan for working with the migrants who are expected to reenter the shelter placement process if they can’t find an apartment.

“The goal is to get them into a path of sustainability and independence,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said at a recent press conference. “But there are some limitations to what we can do. This is literally unprecedented.”

More obstacles for migrants looking for apartments

In his search, Carvajal said most rentals require applicants to earn three times the cost of monthly rent. With no job or income, Carvajal can’t meet that threshold. He is originally from Colombia and he doesn’t qualify for a work permit. His wife and her older son who are from Venezuela are in the process of getting their permits. That has been taking months.

Advocates like Wong say finding landlords interested and willing to take a risk on people who don’t have a strong applicant profile is difficult. But ultimately the biggest obstacle is the lack of affordable apartments in Chicago — especially for large multigenerational families that try to squeeze people in one small apartment.

“It’s very easy for people to just float the word affordable, but … affordable for whom?” said Juliana González-Crussi, executive director for the Center for Changing Lives, which works with individuals at risk of homelessness. “More and more, we see less units that are affordable for lower-income families that might be larger in size. So we’re looking for people who are earning lower than $30,000 a year, but may have a four- or six-family household.”

González-Crussi said there needs to be a strategy to really address the lower income households — starting by rethinking the way the apartment rental system works.

She understands property owners need to vet people, but running “credit checks on a household that has no credit, does not mean that they’re at risk of not paying their rent,González-Crussi said.

Despite the long odds, Carvajal is not giving up on the apartment search.

He continues riding his bike scouring “For Rent” signs, hoping a new home will allow his family to settle in their new life in Chicago.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ. Follow her on X @AdrianaCardMag.

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