On a frigid Saturday afternoon in January, Woodlawn residents assembled in the auditorium of Hyde Park Academy on Chicago’s South Side. Community members faced a row of city officials sitting on stage and expressed their outrage at the decision to convert the closed former Wadsworth elementary school into a temporary shelter for migrants.
They questioned not being informed about the plan. They questioned how a mostly Black and non-Spanish speaking neighborhood will support a large group of migrants – the majority of whom are from Venezuela. They questioned why the city is placing vulnerable asylum seekers in an already vulnerable community.
Toward the end of the meeting, one community member shouted: “You’re just pitting one group against another.”
Asylum seekers are expected to move into the temporary Wadsworth shelter on 64th and University Thursday. And it’s turned into a heated conversation about resources, city transparency and Black-Latino relations in Chicago.
Woodlawn resident Benji Hart said the shelter controversy shows how anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism reinforce one another.
“The investment that’s being made in this building is itself not a real investment,” Hart said, who also wrote an op-ed about it for the South Side Weekly. “It’s an in-between stop for folks while they search for housing and for jobs. And it doesn’t sound like a particularly inviting or welcoming one. It’s not ‘how could you provide this amazing resource to migrants when people in the neighborhood don’t have access to those resources,’ which is how a lot of the conversation has been framed.”
There’s validity to both sides of the conversation, said Sylvia Puente, president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum, which works to build relationships between Black and Latino leaders in the city. Woodlawn residents need resources and there’s a migrant crisis.
“In a win-win world, it’s not either-or but it’s both and. It’s how does the city respond to living up to its intention and reputation as a welcoming city, while also responding to our most vulnerable residents,” Puente said.
Puente said racial tensions still exist – but so does goodwill.
“It really is, how do we communicate and have transparency and dialogue so that the community can feel comfortable?” Puente said. “We all live in this city, we all love this city. We all want the best for this city.”
Woodlawn has residents struggling to meet rents juxtaposed with a growing stock of luxury homes. There’s fear of displacement alongside longing for more resources and amenities. A decade ago the city closed dozens of public schools. Wadsworth was one of them and that’s not lost on Carol Waitse – a 22-year homeowner and property owner in Woodlawn.
She lives across the street and said the surrounding property has been neglected with overgrown shrubs, trees and scattered trash. Residents have been trying to bring attention to that vacant space for years.
“And then I saw in the news, why they’re starting to pay attention to the property. That’s why they trimmed the trees. That’s why someone came and cleaned up the lawn,” Waitse said.
The perception of the community pushback as being “anti-migrant” or “Black vs. Brown” is frustrating to her.
“All of a sudden, this became ‘us versus them.’ And that is nowhere near what Woodlawn is about. It’s about, you didn’t give us the chance to weigh in on this,” Waitse said. “We are a community and we want people to feel at home. And we know they will not feel at home in that building.”
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) stressed the lack of community engagement.
“You should have asked. You imposed, you didn’t ask… you didn’t listen to my community. They clearly told you no,” Taylor said.
The city has said that this shelter will remain for up to two years. Like the others in the city it will have on-site case managers to connect new arrivals to healthcare, mental healthcare and other supports. The temporary shelter is largely a response to the over 5,000 new arrivals that have come to Chicago since the fall – sent to the sanctuary city on buses from Texas and Colorado.
Officials have said there will be a security presence on the interior and exterior of the Woodlawn facility, and they want to prevent loitering. Police officers will make frequent patrols around the campus area. But Woodlawn resident Kimberly Scott said she’s still worried about the safety of the community, pointing to a senior building and other schools in the area.
“They’re saying that they have a safety plan but it hasn’t been transparent… We keep hearing ‘Oh it’s fluid, it’s fluid, it’s fluid,’” Scott said.
Hart said it’s disheartening to hear some of the rhetoric around neighbors expressing concerns about crime and property values because of the shelter.
“[It’s] things we as Black people hear about ourselves everytime we show up to a new place, every time we’re forced out of a neighborhood or a community and have to scramble to find new places, to house and call home for ourselves,” they said.
Hart acknowledged the real legacies of anti-Blackness in non-Black communities of color – and said that in Chicago, non-Black communities of color are given investments and opportunities Black communities are not. It’s not “anti-immigrant” or “anti-brown” to name that history and talk clearly about the sources of that tension.
But Hart said the argument that Woodlawn can’t support migrants because the neighborhood is already struggling is not a reason to turn away newcomers – it’s a reason to join together and work together, to make demands for investment.
“We are targeting people who aren’t just suffering and struggling alongside us, but who could actually be our allies in making those demands,” Hart said. “We’re fracturing what could be a real movement.”
The next community meeting will be on Feb. 16.
Indira Khera is a Metro Reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @KheraIndi.