The Inn of Chicago is a former boutique hotel just east of the Magnificent Mile. It’s surrounded by luxury hotels and restaurants as throngs of tourists walk by. But a closer look reveals a tight security presence around the building. Families with young children play and walk the perimeter. The Inn is now a shelter for migrant families seeking asylum.
Roughly 10,000 new arrivals have come to Chicago since August of last year — and more than 4,000 of them are living in shelters across the city. To serve these migrants, city officials are currently operating 10 shelters and respite centers in neighborhoods across the city — including the Inn in Streeterville. Some of these shelters have been met with pushback because residents argue the resources dedicated to asylum-seekers should instead be poured into their own disinvested communities. But no neighborhood or section of the city is exclusively bearing the responsibility of providing a place to eat and sleep for asylum-seekers. Shelters span from Woodlawn to West Ridge, from Humboldt Park to Streeterville.
“We know this is hard on all communities whether we’re going to Wilbur Wright or the park district … that’s why it’s important to have dialogue,” said Brandie Knazze, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. “Immigrants have come and made Chicago the great city that it is and so we have to work together to find solutions.”
Knazze said the city looks for large congregate spaces that are at least 50,000 square feet, with areas for people to eat and socialize. Other considerations include whether the city already owns the property, laundry access, private outdoor space and Wi-Fi — so new arrivals can connect with their families and learn about their new neighborhoods.
Knazze said they’re constantly looking for new shelters to help relieve the pressure that’s been placed on police district stations citywide.
“We have young babies that are sleeping on the floor,” she said. “Putting a roof over someone’s head, making sure they’re able to eat and get medical care and case management is really important.”
As of Tuesday, 552 new arrivals were awaiting temporary shelter placement at police district stations.
In Roseland, Another Chance Church sheltered single men starting in the fall. Pastor Kenyatta Smith said the local response was mixed — at first.
“As time went on, the community really wrapped around, seeing what they could do to help,” Smith said. “Once a person identifies our fellow brothers and sisters who need help, the heart kicks in.”
Smith said congregants and community organizations made sure asylum-seekers had shoes and winter coats.
Twenty-seven miles north in West Ridge, the former High Ridge YMCA is housing families. A block away, Bari Fleischer works at the Blitstein Institute, an Orthodox Jewish women’s college. She said the first time she interacted with an asylum-seeker from the YMCA was when a woman approached her in the parking lot with her students. The woman said she couldn’t afford food or clothing for her 7-year-old daughter and asked if Fleischer knew of any work.
“In my horribly broken Spanish I did my best — I told her I would bring her clothing from my son’s wardrobe — it’s boys clothing — but I would help in any way that I could,” Fleischer said.
In addition to The Inn of Chicago, migrants have lived in hostels and hotels in the Loop, Greektown and the Gold Coast. But volunteer Christina Varotsis said downtown isn’t ideal for migrant families. The Rogers Park resident helped move families from the Leone Beach Park respite center into the Inn.
“They don’t know where to really go … They have no money either. What do you do in downtown Chicago if you have no money?” she said.
The majority of migrants are from Venezuela and many were sent on buses to the city from states like Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is politically testing Democratic cities like Chicago that proclaim to be sanctuary cities. But the humanitarian crisis is growing here alongside tension in determining long-term solutions.
Last week, three Chicago City Council members delayed a proposal to spend $51 million in emergency funding on the migrant crisis. Meanwhile, city officials continue to stress the severe nature of the crisis, pointing to a shelter system that is near or at capacity. Police stations across the city have been turned into makeshift shelters, and are often the first stop for asylum-seekers after they arrive. They’re a safe place to wait until new arrivals can be transported to temporary shelters.
Meanwhile, opposition to migrants and shelters continues to bubble, highlighting Black and Latino racial tensions. In February, migrants moved into the former Wadsworth Elementary building amid community pushback. Some Woodlawn residents shared frustration that a shelter was being placed in the vacant building; the closure of the school is still a painful memory. More recently, in nearby South Shore some residents are vehemently fighting a proposal to use a former high school building as a shelter and they even filed a lawsuit.
In both of these majority-Black neighborhoods, part of the opposition comes from the idea that resources from already resource-deprived areas are being used toward new arrivals instead of the community that’s there and needs help. But city officials continue to stress that shelters for new arrivals are not diverting funds from other shelters, such as those for people experiencing homelessness.
Another dimension of the resource concern is the temporary shelters aren’t exactly ideal places to be. Volunteers say there’s inconsistent access to hot water, the food isn’t great and there’s severe overcrowding.
Now the Northwest Side has a shelter. Families moved into a temporary shelter at Wilbur Wright College over the weekend but during a community meeting with city officials last week, advocates both for and against rallied outside.
Northwest Side resident Frank Coconate is against the shelter.
“We do not want this facility, a college, used for a bed and breakfast type of place,” Coconate said. “This is a college that the taxpayers pay for. We do not want it used for people who come here from another country to sit and sleep and wander around the village.”
Tim Libretti, of Portage Park, disagrees.
“These people who come here in need of help are not freeloaders, are not drags on our economy or our society, but will become valuable contributors,” Libretti said. “We become stronger when we extend a hand to people and help them contribute to our world.”
Indira Khera is a Metro Reporter at WBEZ. Follow @KheraIndi.