Staring down a winter with migrants at police stations or tent shelters, the city announced a new partnership with local churches to house migrants Tuesday.
The program — the Unity Initiative — will bring about 20 migrants each to a few local churches for temporary shelter and assistance with services such as legal help, housing and eventually jobs.
“The model fosters a sense of family support,” said Rev. John Zayas, a pastor who piloted the program independently over the past year. “It’s not just housing, it’s hope.”
The West Side pastor and Mayor Brandon Johnson announced the program at Zayas’ church, Grace and Peace Lutheran in North Austin.
The program’s reach is small, beginning with about 100 migrants who will be moved from police stations to churches Wednesday. Seventeen total churches are enlisted to participate, each sheltering 20 migrants, but several are already housing migrants through Zayas’ earlier initiative.
The program will be funded with $350,000 in private donations.
It comes as around 1,300 migrants remain camped out at police stations and O’Hare Airport.
Those numbers have fallen significantly in recent weeks — down from 3,300 at stations in mid-October and nearly 900 at O’Hare in early October — and several stations have been cleared out.
But many stations remain crowded.
Sandra Brisben Vazquez, a longtime volunteer, said the Ogden District police station is too small for any migrants to stay inside overnight or during the day.
A warming bus comes to the station around 8:30 p.m. until morning, but it’s become so cold migrants are left in a dangerous situation during the day.
When Brisben Vazquez arrived Monday evening, she recalled how “inhumane” scene she saw.
“They were literally standing outside shaking,” said the downtown nurse, beginning to cry as she spoke. “They showed me their water bottle, saying, ‘We can’t even drink water, because it’s frozen.’”
She said she opened up her Toyota Sienna as a warming van in the meantime for about eight migrants but didn’t understand how the city was closing some stations while others had people sleeping outside or spending whole days outside.
“I don’t see the logic in the logistics of where they’re placing our refugees,” Brisben Vazquez said. “We have these people sleeping outside like animals. It’s just not right.”
The city did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the West Side police station. Eight of 21 police stations have been emptied. Several have more than 100 migrants.
At the news conference Tuesday, Johnson reiterated the city’s goal of emptying police stations and touted the program as the latest in the city’s changing migrant playbook.
“Timing is crucial; we cannot abandon asylum-seekers and let them go through Chicago’s winter alone,” Johnson said. “This is just one of many creative solutions we’re finding.”
Those other creative solutions include new shelter limits — due to take effect in January – and the migrant tent shelters at 38th Street and California Avenue and 115th and Halsted streets.
GardaWorld — the controversial company picked to build the camps — had begun placing base structures at the Brighton Parksite Tuesday, mayoral spokesman Ronnie Reese said in a release.
“If there are no complications, erection of the base camp may begin as early as Wednesday, Nov. 29,” Reese said.
Reese said environmental mitigation strategies for the site polluted with heavy metals would continue and are expected to be completed at the end of the week.
Johnson acknowledged at a Q&A session after Tuesday’s announcement that the environmental assessment of the site had not been released. He said he expected it to be out later this week.
Johnson spoke at a podium in front of several pastors already hosting migrants, including Rev. Jonathan de la O, a participant in Zayas’ program since May; Rev. Beth Brown, who started her own Faith Community Initiative over the summer which houses over a dozen migrant families; and Rev. Chad Bacon, a North Side pastor who has hosted migrants since last year.
Bacon has hosted about 50 migrant family members at the New Life Community Church in Lake View, on and off, since last December, and said Johnson’s initiative offers several advantages.
“The benefit of this program is that a church community won’t stop caring. Even after a job and house are found, they’ll still be invested in these families as they establish life in our city,” Bacon said. “The city has formed a path to welcome people in, and the church can help walk that path through this program.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.