Dozens of South American migrants seek temporary shelter at the Chicago Police 12th District station near Pilsen on May 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Migrants and volunteers who work on the front lines with them are sounding the alarm on conditions at some of the city’s temporary shelters, saying people are served moldy food, don’t have hot water and aren’t allowed to accept donations from neighbors.

The city is housing people in temporary shelters as Chicago faces a “humanitarian crisis” as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican governors near the border send Central and South American migrants to Chicago, pushing the city’s shelter system to its limit. 

Hundreds of migrants have been sleeping at police stations in recent weeks while the city has been trying to find large facilities to turn into shelters and respite centers.

Resources and funding remain strapped, with all eight city-run shelters near or at capacity, officials have said.

Since August, more than 10,500 men, women and children have come to Chicago. About 4,500 people are staying in the city’s temporary shelters, and more than 600 are waiting in police stations for shelter space to become available, officials said last week.

Migrants told Block Club the conditions at Leone Beach House, 1222 W. Touhy Ave. in Rogers Park, and the Inn of Chicago Hotel, 162 E. Ohio St. in Streeterville, are concerning.

An example of moldy food served to migrants staying at Inn of Chicago, 162 E. Ohio St. Credit: Provided

Two women who have stayed at both shelters said they were given visibly moldy food and insufficient amounts of food, which they photographed. They said they have to shower and bathe their kids with cold water and can’t bring anything given to them by volunteers or anything they’ve bought themselves inside the shelter.

While staying at Leone Beach, the women said they slept on the floor. At the Inn of Chicago, they said there are beds and bunks to fit three families in one hotel room.

People at Inn of Chicago are also restricted to only 20 pieces of clothes per family — meaning a family of four could have five pieces each — and can only have their clothes laundered once a week, the women said.

“The police stations treated us better,” one woman said, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of getting in trouble. “But at the shelters they wont let [volunteers] give us anything.”

“The same day I arrived [at a police station] a doctor came to see me and asked if my daughter was alright,” the other woman said. “And they let the volunteers gift us things.”

South American migrants set up their bedding while they seek temporary shelter at the Chicago Police 12th District station near Pilsen on May 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The women met at the Leone Beach shelter last month after separately making long journeys from South America with their young daughters, they said. They were shuffled from police stations to the Leone Beach shelter and eventually to the Inn of Chicago.

Both women said their experiences at Leone Beach and Inn of Chicago haven’t been what they expected. When people spoke up to shelter staff about their concerns, they were shut down, the women said.

“If you go into the shelter, you’ll realize what I’m saying is not a lie,” one woman said. “Apart from everything, the treatment is awful. They treat the migrants like they’re practically children.”

Particularly frustrating to the women is the lack of proactive care for their children, they said. Their young children either won’t eat the food they’re served or aren’t given enough. Shelter staff also won’t let them have over the counter medicine for their kids.

One of the women said her 2½-year-old daughter lost about 10 pounds throughout their journey to the U.S. from Venezuela and she isn’t gaining any of it back.

“She’s wearing the clothes of a 1½-year-old,” she said.

Leone Beach House, 1222 W. Touhy Ave., is one of the city’s temporary shelters to house migrants who have arrived to the city since August. Credit: Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago

With Shelters Locked Down, Volunteers Ask: ‘What Are They Hiding?’

North Sider Sorsha Urquiza has been working to support these two women, along with other migrants she met while volunteering at the 24th (Rogers Park) Police District station. She’s just one of the hundreds of people supporting migrants across the city with food, clothing, transportation and other resources.

Urquiza said it was frustrating to hear about the moldy food and lack of medical attention at the shelters, especially since she now has restricted access to the people staying there.

“They fled to come to a better life and then be to welcomed to this?” she said. “There are already so many obstacles for them.”

Shelter staff at Inn of Chicago yelled at Urquiza when she tried to coordinate dropping off donations for people and threatened to give her a ticket, she said. When she tried the same at Leone Beach, staff told migrants to come back inside and closed the doors on her.

“What are they hiding?” Urquiza said.

Members of the media have also been denied entry to the city’s temporary shelters, but not the police stations where migrants have stayed.

When a Block Club reporter tried to speak to staff at Leone Beach last month, an employee covered their badge with their hand, wouldn’t identify themselves and refused to answer questions.

The staff member directed Block Club to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

In a statement, Mary May, a spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said people who aren’t credentialed to work at the city’s temporary shelters or respite centers won’t be allowed to enter “for security reasons and client privacy.”

An example of a meal provided to people at the Piotrowski Park shelter, 1222 W. Touhy Ave. Credit: Provided

Paula Roa, an immigration attorney and volunteer, said she’s heard similar issues about migrants not having sufficient food, medical care or access to community resources from people staying at the Piotrowski Park shelter, 4247 W. 31st St., in Little Village.

Roa said it’s “isolating” to block volunteers from supporting or advocating for the people they’ve made connections with.

“It doesn’t allow for any of the community resources to reach them,” she said. “We were doing a better job at the [police] precincts.”

Dozens of volunteers who have been working with migrants at police stations and city shelters penned a letter to Mayor Brandon Johnson last week outlining changes they want the city to make, like providing adequate three meals a day and access to preventative medical care, as well as being more transparent about the inner workings of the shelters.

“We love our newest Chicago neighbors, and with hearts full of hope, optimism, and energy, we are ready to help your promises become swift and effective action, and for that action to become our collective legacy. But we must start today,” the volunteers wrote.

A spokesperson for Johnson’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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