WEST ROSELAND — Far South Side neighbors vehemently opposed plans to build winterized tent camps to house migrants on a long-vacant lot at a packed neighborhood meeting Wednesday.
About 100 neighbors crowded into the Sheldon Heights Church of Christ Wednesday evening as Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st) discussed the possibility of a temporary shelter for migrants in his ward at the former Halsted Indoor Mall parking lot at 115th and Halsted Street.
A large crowd gathered outside the church, 11325 S. Halsted St., as it quickly reached capacity. Police officers locked the doors and used a “one in, one out” strategy to control the crowd.
The meeting came days after Mayor Brandon Johnson disclosed to the Sun-Times that the city aims to move about 1,600 migrants out of Chicago police stations into “winterized base camps” modeled after New York City shelters. The military-grade tents would be climate-controlled with bathrooms and showers, intake spaces and facility areas.
The lot at 115th and Halsted Street was proposed as one potential location for the camps, sources told CBS Chicago Friday.
But Mosley didn’t propose using the 115th and Halsted Street site, he told frustrated neighbors. The Mayor’s Office called him last week and asked to discuss a “potential site” at the long-vacant lot, Mosley said.
Mosley said while it’s “not likely” the city will use the Far South Side lot for tent camps for migrants, he “can’t give a definite no,” and the plan isn’t permanently off the table, Mosley said.
“You have my guarantee that if that ever changes, you will know,” Mosley said.
At a meeting late last week where Johnson’s office briefed City Council members about the proposed camps, alderpeople “were asked to identify two to three suitable sites in their ward” that could potentially house migrants, Mosley said.
Alderpeople were informed that the surge of migrants in the city “makes temporary shelters in all communities a possibility,” Mosley said. The city is looking for “about two acres of land, concrete or asphalt, that is extremely leveled,” Mosley said.
When asked which sites he identified, Mosley said the city proposed the 115th and Halsted site before he could come up with suggestions. The only one he could think of was the closed Garrett Morgan Elementary School at 84th Street and Vincennes Avenue, which is uninhabitable.
Mosley notified neighbors about the meeting a day before it was scheduled because he “didn’t want neighbors left in the dark,” he said. Neighbors deserved to have “the right information,” he said.
Neighbors stood in long lines inside the church’s perimeters to share their frustrations. When asked their opinion about the development, the answer was a resounding ‘No.’ Chants of “No migrants in our community, Mosley,” echoed through the church.
Daphne Taylor, a Washington Heights resident for more than 50 years, expressed a common refrain neighbors across the city have shared: the city “should be taking care of its own first,” she said.
The area has suffered from years of disinvestment, neighbors said, so their concern was less about the migrants themselves and more about the city using resources for migrants instead of longtime residents.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis is estimated to cost taxpayers $255 million by the end of the year, Johnson told alderpeople Friday. The city has spent nearly $133 million to address the crisis from August 2022 through July, according to the city’s presentation to alderpeople.
“There are a lot of people out here hurting that they could be helping, and there’s a lot of problems going on in this community they could be fixing,” Taylor said. “It feels like we’re being locked out of the situation, and that’s unfair.”
One of the ward’s top issues is a lack of housing opportunities, Taylor said.
The vacant site at 115th and Halsted is being eyed for redevelopment next year. Morgan Park Commons, a 12-acre project that would transform the former Jewel-Osco grocery store and Halsted Mall into affordable housing and retail, is expected to break ground in 2024, Mosley said Wednesday.
The Far South Side Development Corporation, the project’s developer, received $15 million in funding from the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in 2022 to support the development, according to the Sun-Times. The Bringing Communities Back Initiative, which included Morgan Park Commons, was also a finalist for the second-ever Chicago Prize in 2022.
The multi-million dollar project would bring more than 800 new jobs, nearly 300 housing units and a community center to the ward, according to developers.
If the tent camps took up space at the vacant lot, neighbors might miss out on a welcomed development replacing a years-long eyesore in the community, they said.
After hearing the city was considering the 115th and Halsted site, Mosley “reached out to stakeholders” and asked for another meeting with the mayor’s team, where they “shared issues and concerns with the site,” Mosley said.
At the end of that discussion, “we walked away saying we would have one more meeting to start developing the strategy to plan for if this were to happen, and then we would have a community meeting,” Mosley said. Of the 20 people at the discussion, “someone in the meeting decided it needed to be shared,” Mosley said.
One of the “concerns” shared by Mosley’s team was ownership of the vacant lot, Mosley said.
The site has two different owners. One is the Far South Side Development Corporation, which has a permit application to demolish the vacant structure, Mosley said. The second owner “has the site up for sale,” he said.
At the time, the city “was only talking to one owner,” Mosley said. Mosley has no plans to stop progress on Morgan Park Commons, he said.
“I’m not in favor of delays to that development, and I’m still working to make sure we can break ground next year in 2024,” Mosley said. “We’re still on schedule. That’s what the 21st Ward is continuing to do.”
Ultimately, the decision to build camps in the ward “is not one necessarily with the alderman,” Mosley told residents.
The city can execute a contract with one of the private owners of the lot, Mosley said.
It’s what’s happened in communities like Douglas, where neighbors received less than a day’s notice about a temporary shelter at a vacant health center, and in Woodlawn at the Wadsworth School shelter.
Across the South Side, neighbors have shown up in droves to protest shuttered schools and hotels becoming temporary migrant shelters. Citing years of disinvestment, some neighbors say they feel the city is neglecting their needs and repurposing shuttered spaces that could be used for other uses. Some are frustrated with the city’s lack of transparency.The pushback has sometimes carried over into xenophobic comments.
In Woodlawn, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot transformed the former Wadsworth School into a shelter in February after months of back-and-forth denying the city had plans for the site. A South Side aldermanic candidate at the time tried to block buses from dropping migrants off at the shelter.
In Kenwood, neighbors sang a similar tune about the city’s lies before moving about 300 people into the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel in August.
“What I’m thankful for is the mayor had enough respect for the 21st Ward to reach out to us first,” Mosley said.
But neighbors, wary of the alderperson’s response, questioned if that meant they didn’t have a say in the matter. If they don’t, neighbors asked: will the city move forward with housing a migrant tent city there without notice?
“The site doesn’t work,” Mosley said. “That has not changed. It could change in terms of ownership. If that does happen, I’m working on us being in control of the ‘how,’” Mosley said.
Mosley heard neighbors loud and clear, he said. He’ll “keep fighting for our interests in the ward,” he said.
“That’s my priority,” Mosley said.
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