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Chicago and other northern U.S. cities scramble to house migrants with coldest weather just ahead

A Venezuelan woman carries supplies in white garbage bags  into the Chicago City Life Center.
Carolina Gonzalez of Venezuela carries supplies into the Chicago City Life Center on Wednesday. The community center and church welcomed about 40 migrants who had been living at police stations and airports.
(Erin Hooley / Associated Press)
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Chicago is scrambling to house hundreds of asylum-seekers who are still sheltering on sidewalks, at police stations and at the city’s busiest airport as the cold weather sets in and with winter just around the corner.

The country’s third-largest city is partnering with religious leaders to house 400 of the migrants in churches. But with nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing and chillier conditions still ahead, more than 1,000 were still living at police stations or at O’Hare International Airport as of Friday, according to the city dashboard.

“As winter fast approaches, our need for greater collaboration and coordination grows. And that is why we are mobilizing Chicago’s faith community and our partners in the philanthropic community to meet this moment,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said at a news conference announcing the partnership.

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More than 23,000 asylum-seekers have been bused to Chicago from Texas since the start of the year, according to the city. Other Democratic-led cities are grappling with similar influxes, including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, which has received more than 120,000 asylum-seekers.

Illinois has said it plans to funnel an additional $160 million to help resettle migrants who arrive in Chicago, including $65 million to help the city build and operate two temporary shelters to avoid people sleeping out in the cold. The state announced Friday that it would give an additional $4 million that will go toward feeding asylum-seekers in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Construction began recently on a structure meant to house 2,000 migrants in what had been a vacant lot in the Brighton Park neighborhood, but it’s unclear how quickly it might be ready, as local residents have been protesting the project, saying it doesn’t meet zoning requirements and that the soil at the site, which has a long history of industrial use, is toxic.

Alderwoman Julia Ramirez, who represents the ward on the City Council, said she opposes the project due to safety concerns for her constituents and the migrants.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced he is limiting shelter stays for migrant families with children to 60 days in the city’s housing system.

Oct. 16, 2023

“I will gladly shelter and welcome asylum-seekers. But I think that we haven’t done it in a very dignified and humane way,” Ramirez told the Associated Press.

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The state said it wouldn’t move people into the shelter until it has been deemed safe.

Yimara Pajaro, a Venezuelan seamstress, said she and her partner had been camping outside a South Side police station for two months until they were moved Wednesday to a church near Washington Park as part of the faith community’s resettlement initiative.

Sleeping outside in Chicago, which has had several snowfalls and subfreezing nights this fall, left them in bad shape, said Pajaro, who suffered three asthma attacks worsened by the cold. Blankets did little to keep out the chill. “It affected me a lot,” she said in Spanish.

Although Pajaro said she had no choice in whether to leave the police station, she feels grateful to be staying at the church. “At first we didn’t want to leave because we didn’t know where they would take us,” she said.

Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun famous for her compassion toward migrants, said that parties on both sides of the aisle turned the bus carrying migrants from Texas to L.A. into a spectacle.

June 29, 2023

The faith-led housing initiative will prioritize pregnant women, children and those who have been sleeping outside, according to Johnson. The churches plan to host people for 60 days with the goal of transitioning them to independent living or another shelter, according to Pastor Torrey Barrett of Life Center Church, which recently welcomed 40 migrants, including Pajaro.

Pajaro said she wouldn’t want to move to a shelter designed to hold thousands of people, like the one planned for Brighton Park. And if the site is polluted, “they should not bring anyone there,” she said. “We will get sick. It seems like our health doesn’t matter to them.”

The city had hoped to move the migrants out of police stations by Dec. 1, but it wasn’t able to do so, Ramirez said. But if the Brighton Park shelter is built, the city might be able to clear them out in the next few weeks, she said.

The mayors of Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York have been pressing for more federal aid to deal with the surge. Migrants have been arriving in the Democratic-led cities on buses funded by the Republican governors of Texas and Florida.

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New York has received more than 120,000 asylum-seekers over the past year, and about half of them are staying in shelters run by the city, which is legally required to provide emergency housing to homeless people.

New York is intensifying efforts to transport migrants out of the city as its shelter system reaches capacity, setting up a dedicated office to provide asylum-seekers with free, one-way tickets to anywhere in the world.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has called the city’s migrant influx a crisis and has begun to warn that shelters are so full that migrants will soon be forced onto the street despite the cold weather.

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