When a Venezuelan family arrived in Chicago in December after a three-month journey from South America, they found a city with little shelter space.
While Kevin had arrived earlier and found a shelter bed before his partner, Legna, and their two children crossed the border into Texas, it was far more difficult to secure a home for the entire family. They ended up spending days sleeping in waiting rooms, the hallway of a shelter and on the floor of a Chicago police station.
“I thought they were going to help my family seek shelter,” said Kevin, who asked that his family’s full names not be published. “It was more complicated. It was harder finding shelter for all of us.”
As people seeking asylum continue to arrive in Chicago, officials are grappling with how to provide housing. Efforts to convert spaces into temporary shelters at times have been met with controversy. And amid a shortage of beds, community groups and volunteers have scrambled to catch new arrivals like Kevin and his family who have fallen through the cracks.
There are more than 3,000 beds at 50 facilities that get support and funding from the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, according to its website.
Chicago is expected to receive $20 million from the state for shelter, transportation, basic health, food and first aid for new arrivals, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked for $53.5 million.
About two months after the buses started arriving, Brandie Knazze, the commissioner for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, in an email dated Nov. 5 notified officials that shelters were at capacity. At a community meeting in January, she described the need for housing as “urgent,” describing how some were sleeping at police stations while waiting for a shelter bed.
City officials previously said that the temporary shelter at the shuttered James Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn could house about 250 adult men and women.
But even that additional space is only a “drop in the bucket,” said Evelyn Figueroa, the director of the Pilsen Food Pantry, who has been helping about a dozen new arrivals in Little Village.
“There’s a much greater need than what the Woodlawn facility is going to be able to provide,” Figueroa said.
A house ‘full of extra love’
Since August, more than 5,140 immigrants have arrived in Chicago, including those sent on chartered buses from Texas and Colorado. In February, there were about 2,100 living in the shelter system, city officials said at a community meeting.
The city started to experience a shortage of beds in December, when it would sometimes take days to get someone placed in a shelter, said Ere Rendón, vice president of immigrant justice at the nonprofit Resurrection Project. That meant the asylum seekers had to stay at police stations, warming centers or with someone from the community, she said.
The city has created makeshift shelters in various locations, including the Northerly Island visitor center. The state is also planning to turn a building that once housed a Kmart on the Southwest Side into a temporary shelter.
Kevin and his family never found space at one of the area shelters. Instead, Evanston resident Kristin Huzar took the family into her home. Huzar learned about the family while dropping off donations at a Far North Side storefront that has turned into a makeshift community center for new arrivals.
“And just out of my mouth came, ‘I’ll take them,’” Huzar said. “I hadn’t met them yet.”
Soon, the entryway of her Evanston home was filled with shoes and backpacks for the two young boys who are now enrolled in a local school. A spare bedroom that once housed her pet bunnies now includes a bed and air mattress so the family can stay together.
Huzar is assembling a group of volunteers to help the family navigate getting identification, independent housing and eventually jobs in the Chicago area. But for now, Huzar said she is enjoying having her house full as the two families share meals together.
“I feel like the house has been full of extra love since they’ve been here,” she said.
A Connection in West Ridge
Kevin and Legna connected with Huzar through the Rev. Luisette Kraal, of Park Community Church, who along with her husband has turned a West Ridge storefront into a makeshift community center for hundreds of new arrivals. They are connected to the Refugee Community Connection, a Chicago-based online community that has been helping the waves of refugees.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Kraal was busy figuring out transportation logistics of how new arrivals would get rides to West Ridge.
One family, who had not been able to find shelter space that day, was sleeping at the West Ridge storefront until Kraal could take them home with her.
In the basement, volunteers were busy helping Kurdish refugees pick out a winter coat, jeans and boots to get them through their first Chicago winter. As they finished, a group of new arrivals coming from the southern border showed up.
Brian Lopez, 23, carried bags of donated clothes he and others organized by size and type. He later helped serve the group the donated Mediterranean meal they received.
Lopez had been in Chicago less than a month, having come to the storefront to pick out clothes when he first arrived. Now he’s among the dozen or so immigrants who have become volunteers on Friday evenings.
He’s living at a shelter on the North Side, though he had initially been turned away from another shelter. He hasn’t been able to find work or discuss his immigration case with an attorney, and he isn’t sure how long he will be able to stay at the shelter.
“Obviously, I can’t stay there forever, and obviously I don’t want to live there forever,” said Lopez, who left his native Venezuela.
Another woman, who asked that her name not be published, arrived in early December to Chicago after leaving Ecuador with her 9-year-old son. When she arrived, the person who had offered to help her settle in the U.S. stopped taking her calls.
She ended up staying with Kraal when she was unable to get into a shelter. The woman recently moved in with another family in an apartment.
Kraal said they would like to have a bigger space — such as an unused school or church — that could serve as a temporary shelter for people. She said they’ve outgrown the storefront, pointing out she was expecting about 40 people on the recent Friday and instead about 80 showed up.
“There is no shelter space,” Kraal said. “Sometimes I take people in my home, and two weeks later there is still no shelter for them to go.”
For now, she’s trying to collect Ventra cards that new arrivals can use to travel to West Ridge.
“They come, and they all want to talk with us, and they talk to each other,” she said. “They love on each other, they help each other.”
An uncertain future in Little Village
Community activist Delilah Martinez usually gets a call when someone in the Pilsen and Little Village area comes across a new arrival wandering, asking for food or a job. Other calls are because individuals are sleeping at nearby police stations.
And while not as many buses are arriving as they did last fall, Martinez said the calls keep coming.
With the help of the 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez and the 25th Ward Independent Political Organization, community members like Martinez have turned a vacant storefront in Little Village into a temporary shelter for about 13 people, said Figueroa, of the Pilsen Food Pantry.
Using her previous experience with shelters, Figueroa has gotten involved in the effort to make the space resemble a traditional shelter. She also is emphasizing ways in which those staying at the makeshift shelter can avoid conflict among themselves.
“So really trying to organize everybody together to make sure that we’re treating people equitably and addressing basic human rights,” Figueroa said. “But also moving them along the timeline that they need, and getting them experts in immigration that can help them understand has been especially challenging.”
While the space could hold more people, Figueroa said they are struggling to keep up as she and other community members seek additional funds and resources to keep the Little Village space going.
“The need is here, and we want to help,” Figueroa said. “But without funding, which really may not be available from the government based on the design of these shelters and the constraints that city shelter funding has in Chicago, I’m very worried about how long we’ll be able to sustain this.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.