Influx of migrants living at Chicago PD stations as city, groups scramble to find them shelter
One migrant at the Logan Square 14th District station was taken to the hospital for chickenpox, but was released and returned to the station later that day
By Nell Salzman and Robert McCoppin
CHICAGO — Two families from Venezuela sat on metal chairs in the lobby of Chicago’s Jefferson Park 16th District police station Tuesday, desperate for permanent shelter after spending months walking and taking buses to get to the United States.
Jessica Chirino said she and her family had been waiting six days to hear from the city about what shelter might have space. “We’ve been through so much to get here, so much, for this,” Chirino told the Tribune in Spanish.
Across the city, migrants overwhelming the city’s social services have been living at police stations while awaiting placement at shelters, raising health and humanitarian concerns among police and community organizations. People seeking asylum have been placed at more than a dozen police districts around the city, sleeping in the lobbies and waiting — often with children — for days.
On April 1, the Tribune saw more than a dozen people, nearly all women and children, sitting in the lobby of CPD’s South Loop 1st District station. They sat on a ledge along the building’s front window, visible from the street as they rested and waited.
At the time, police officers did not allow the Tribune to speak with the migrants inside the building but expressed frustration with their ongoing presence. Migrants have been sheltering at police stations since at least January.
The Fraternal Order of Police this month filed a grievance over the situation, saying it raises potential health, safety and liability issues, and uses police resources for shelter that should be provided by social service agencies.
“This city said, ‘We’re a welcoming city, we’ll take you,’ but has no plans to do that,” Chicago FOP President John Catanzara Jr. said. “This is not a knock on them, but these people are now living in the lobbies of police stations, which is ridiculous.”
More than 6,000 migrants have come to the city since last fall, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending busloads of migrants to Chicago to protest the influx in his state. Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized Abbott for mistreating the migrants, and said the city would take care of them.
Since then, the migrants, some of whom arrived on their own, have outpaced the city’s ability to place them in 11 migrant shelters or to find permanent placement. Some have been sheltered by the Salvation Army, churches, residents and community groups, others slept in bus and homeless shelters, while some were bused to hotels in the suburbs.
The latest migrants arrived by airplane at O’Hare, Catanzara said, and were transported to police stations, in some cases by school buses.
And more come nearly every day with no place to stay, said Luisette Kraal, coordinator for Nuevos Vecinos — which means New Neighbors — a faith-based group affiliated with Park Community Church that helps provide the migrants with food and clothing, and support services.
“We need the city to get its act together,” she said. “We are overwhelmed.”
City officials did not specifically respond to questions about how they are handling the migrants, but instead released a statement from the outgoing mayor that the city “is working to coordinate safe passage for all new arrivals.”
When migrants arrive at city facilities like police stations, a shelter placement request is immediately made through 311, the statement said. Once the request is made, the city works with community partners to transport the individuals and families to a shelter once space is available.
Additionally, the city has engaged community-based organizations to assist with temporary shelter and other services. “This humanitarian crisis remains fluid, we have been working tirelessly to connect new arrivals with much needed assistance and support. We will continue to work with our local and community leaders to support those in need.”
But perhaps as a sign of the growing urgency of the situation, the city on Wednesday scheduled a joint budget and immigrant and refugee rights hearing for Friday to discuss operation and costs associated with the newly arriving migrants.
Late last year, Lightfoot had requested $54 million from the state to help fund emergency services for those seeking asylum, warning that funding was rapidly drying up. The state approved just $20 million the following month during its lame-duck session.
Lightfoot said at the time she hoped for more federal funding to help address the influx.
Brandon Lee, spokesman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the city closed its intake center for migrants, as well as some of its shelters. He called sending migrants to police stations an “insufficient solution.”
Ald. Maria Hadden, of the 49th Ward in Rogers Park, said the city needs a large central location to house and process large numbers of migrants, who are not getting screened until after they leave the police stations and enter a shelter.
The situation, she said, is “overwhelming,” with city workers “drinking from a fire hose.”
Hadden said that in her ward the Leone Beach Park field house, which previously had been used for storage, opened for migrants, and then closed, before being reopened this week.
She said the state and federal governments and other cities need to offer more help.
“Chicago can’t do this on its own,” Hadden said.
Kraal said her group helps migrants find shelter and city identification and apply for asylum. The group doesn’t get any help or funding from city officials, she said, but has to raise its own funds.
“They’re flying them all over the country,” Kraal said. “So many (migrants) coming in, cities just can’t handle it. We’re struggling.”
The potential for crisis is growing, police and advocates say.
According to a source in the FOP, one of the migrants housed at the Logan Square 14th District station was taken to the hospital for chickenpox on Saturday, but was released and returned to the station later that day. On Sunday, his symptoms worsened and he was again admitted to the hospital and, again, brought back to the district station.
In response, mayoral spokesman Ryan Johnson said, “Anyone seeking treatment would have access to a local health care provider and those with an emergency should seek emergency care.”
At the Jefferson Park station, Chirino, 31, said she has been sick with a fever and a sore throat but has had no choice but to sleep on the hard tile floor. She and her husband, Johnny Caicado, have a few thin blankets that they spread out and roll up to use as pillows.
Chirino and her husband and two daughters left Venezuela because of hyperinflation, the threat of starvation, and crime in their home country.
“I’m hungry,” 5-year-old Charlotte Falcon said, climbing into her mother’s arms.
Charlotte wore the same red pajamas that she’d been wearing for the past week. Chirino rocked her child and whispered reassuring words into her ear.
Ivo Brandelli, 33, and his wife, Karen Malavé, 26, who are also sheltering at the police station, told the Tribune that they worry about the future of their family.
“More than anything, we want to help our kids,” Brandelli said in Spanish, looking at his 7-year-old daughter, Avril. She played with a doll by the radiator at the police station.
“We know that her education is the most important thing for her development,” Malavé added. “If she studies and goes to school, she can do anything. The schools here are better, that’s what we fought for in the four months it took us to get here.”
The two families had moved through detention centers in Mexico and San Antonio, Texas, before being flown to Chicago by social service agencies.
Both families hope to plead asylum. They have few possessions but hold their immigration papers carefully wrapped in folders. Their court dates are in a few weeks, but they don’t know how to find a lawyer, or how to connect with support services.
Chicago Tribune’s A.D. Quig, Gregory Pratt, Jake Sheridan and Sam Charles contributed.