Here’s what we know about Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to set up migrant ‘base camps’

The proposal aims to stop using police station lobbies and airports as points of intake, where nearly 2,000 migrants are currently staying.

Renderings of winterized base camps for migrants
A rendering of some proposed so-called winterized base camps for migrants in Chicago. Provided
Renderings of winterized base camps for migrants
A rendering of some proposed so-called winterized base camps for migrants in Chicago. Provided

Here’s what we know about Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to set up migrant ‘base camps’

The proposal aims to stop using police station lobbies and airports as points of intake, where nearly 2,000 migrants are currently staying.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is trying to move the city into a new phase of its effort to support migrants — one that relies on temporary “base camps” to relieve police stations and airports that are beyond capacity.

The plan, made public last week by the Sun-Times, looks a bit different than what Johnson initially envisioned for the city’s next steps to help new arrivals.

Having inherited the crisis of thousands of migrants being bused to the city, Johnson has pushed to move away from an “emergency mode” that includes housing migrants in police station lobbies. In that, Johnson’s goal has been to utilize city-owned, vacant buildings and buy up new ones that could house new arrivals en masse.

Currently, the city is operating 18 shelters, according to a presentation given to city council members.

But the city hasn’t been able to open and retrofit shelters fast enough to keep up with a steady pace of new arrivals. As of Monday morning, 1,991 migrants are still awaiting shelter placement at police stations or airports.

So the Johnson administration wants to open temporary, congregate, tent-like structures equipped with cots, air conditioning, heating and on-site or nearby showers to house migrants. The administration’s goal is to open “one or more” of what it’s calling weatherized “base camps.”

“This is a very difficult decision,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, who is Johnson’s floor leader. “I think everyone would have preferred retrofitting as many existing brick-and-mortar buildings as possible to meet the need. However, that’s costly. And oftentimes, it takes a very long time to get from point A to point B.”

Here’s what we know, and don’t, about the administration’s new plan.

What will these temporary structures look like and where will they be?

Since last Friday, the administration has been briefing alderpersons on the proposal, and has asked council members to help identify potential sites in their wards.

It is unclear where the structures would be.

As for the structures themselves, Ramirez-Rosa said they would be more like “prefabricated buildings” rather than tents, and that the rendering he saw looked like the walls were made of some type of metal, not canvas — though he wasn’t sure, and it’s unclear from a provided photo.

The structures would be equipped with showers, air conditioning, heating, and rows of cots, Ramirez-Rosa said.

While the city wants to add the temporary structures to its overall plan, it’s not moving away from the goal of opening brick-and-mortar shelters altogether. Just this week, for instance, alderpersons will be asked to approve the purchase of a former Marine Corps training center to house migrants.

What’s the timeline for opening these new temporary structures?

Ramirez-Rosa did not give a timeline for the plan, nor did he say which pieces of it will require city council approval, saying that will depend in part on the land chosen and how it’s zoned.

But the alderman reiterated that the city does not have time to spare — and that the administration is moving full speed ahead.

“I think given the moment, we’ll try and avoid as many City Council votes as possible, because that legislative process does take time. And it can take, sometimes, months, which — we don’t have months here, right? We’re trying to stand something up as quickly as possible, because people can’t be sleeping on police floors,” he said.

While it’s still unclear what power the council will have over approving the plan, Johnson’s administration is vowing to keep alderpersons in the loop.

Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th ward, said in a statement last week that he was “cautiously optimistic” about Johnson’s proposals to address “the federal government’s failures in dealing with a broken immigration system,” and stressed that avoiding addressing the thousands of new arrivals “would be more catastrophic and dangerous to our communities than any action taken to this point.”

In a statement, the council’s Latino Caucus characterized the plan as a last resort and called for more help from surrounding municipalities, and at state and federal levels.

“Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Latino Caucus do not want our neighbors living in tent encampments, at the airport, in police stations, or park facilities. However, we have been left with no other options without meaningful support coming from State and Federal levels.”

Who would run these shelters?

The city, which has thus far relied on health care firms for shelter staffing, hopes to move toward using local community-based organizations and social service agencies to staff existing and future shelters.

The city recently opened a request-for-proposals process that will award 15 applicants a contract to run existing emergency shelters, according to a briefing to council members.

“The ideal Respondent will be able to: provide a safe shelter environment that they can operate and staff 24/7, hire enough qualified staff with Spanish speaking capabilities to meet the shelter staff to resident ratio requirement, provide 3 meals a day for each resident,” the RFP reads.

Applications for that RFP are due Sept. 26.

Previously, Johnson’s deputy chief-of-staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said the amount of money the city has spent on national staffing firms was unsustainable. Millions have been paid to Favorite Healthcare Staffing to staff migrant shelters, and in mid-August, the city also signed a $500,000 contract with Maxim Healthcare Staffing Services.

What about Chicago’s existing unhoused population?

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless said the plan raised questions and concerns, including whether new arrivals will be given the option to go to a traditional shelter, plans for connecting people to permanent housing and services and whether people will have restrictions on coming and going from the winterized tents.

“Solutions being proposed now to support new arrivals are only temporary,” the statement read. “These resources will run out, and Chicago will be in a worse position than when it started.”

Ramirez-Rosa said the shelter will be specifically tailored to new arrivals — and highlighted other efforts by the administration to help Chicago’s existing unhoused population.

“The needs of new arrivals can sometimes be different than individuals that are experiencing street homelessness, or individuals that are living doubled up and tripled up,” he said. “And so oftentimes for someone who is living doubled, or tripled up, a congregate shelter is not the appropriate interim step to get them into housing.”

Ramirez-Rosa said the administration will on Thursday introduce the long-sought “Bring Chicago Home” proposal. That proposal would ask Chicago voters whether they want to implement a tiered tax increase on sales of properties over $1 million in order to create a permanent funding stream for supportive housing and other homeless prevention resources.

How much will this plan cost?

Johnson has not publicly shared a price tag for the temporary structures.

In a presentation to council members, his administration outlined how much the city will spend by the end of the year on the overall crisis: $255 million from August of last year to December.

That number could jump to $301 million with new shelter sites, according to the presentation.

In an interview with the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, the mayor would not rule out using budget cuts or tax increases to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

Johnson’s budget forecast, where he will preview the city’s budgetary challenges including its deficit, is expected Wednesday, with his comprehensive budget proposal expected next month.

How is this working in other cities?

Chicago can look to New York as one example of how housing asylum seekers in outdoor tents may fare.

New York City has received over 110,000 migrants and used sprawling tent shelters last year. A proposed site had to be moved after heavy rains led to flooding, Gothamist reported, and a tent facility was later closed less than a month after it was opened. Plans are now underway to stand up new tent shelters, the news outlet The City reported, although the proposals have faced criticisms, including lack of access to public transit.

Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, said he was left with many unanswered questions after last week’s briefing, and wonders how long the city can sustain the pace of new arrivals long-term.

“Is there a point that we say enough like the New York mayor did?” Moore said. “Or is that not an option?”

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