The east side of the former Wadsworth Elementary School building at 6420 S. University Ave. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

WOODLAWN — City leaders again delayed plans to house migrants bused from Texas in a former Woodlawn school after residents pushed back, the local alderperson said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has for months planned to house migrants at the vacant building formerly home to Wadsworth Elementary School, 6420 S. University Ave. in Woodlawn.

Nearly 4,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since Aug. 31, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing them to Democratic-led cities to protest federal immigration policies.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said in October she was briefed on a proposal to house 500 single men and women at Wadsworth after residents began calling to ask about activity at the long-vacant property.

City crews worked 400 hours in October preparing the building for use as a shelter, according to CBS 2. At the same time, Lightfoot spokesperson Ryan Johnson denied Wadsworth would become a migrant shelter.

City officials then reversed course at a late December community meeting announcing they would move 150 migrants into Wadsworth starting Friday. The about-face “blindsided” Taylor, she said. She also criticized the city’s move to hold the meeting when many people were out for the holidays.

But those plans were delayed again this week, when Lightfoot sent Taylor a message Wednesday “to say they’re moving the date back,” the alderperson told Block Club Thursday evening.

The city “will convene a couple more community meetings” and develop a safety plan for the Wadsworth campus before using it as a shelter, Taylor said.

The first public meeting is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave. Representatives from Taylor’s office, police and state officials will also meet privately Monday to develop a safety strategy for the shelter, according to the alderperson’s office.

“We’re behind the eight-ball because we should’ve had these conversations on the front end,” Taylor said.

Spokespeople for Lightfoot did not respond Thursday to Block Club’s questions about the delay or where the 150 migrants are being housed in the interim.

“The City is continuing to engage with the Woodlawn community and is committed to carefully balancing the needs of both our residents and new arrivals,” spokesperson Ryan Johnson said in a statement Friday. “At this time, the City has not determined a firm date on when this space will open for shelter.”

A few dozen Woodlawn residents gathered Thursday to protest the proposal to shelter migrants at Wadsworth, hours before Taylor told Block Club the plans were on hold.

One rallygoer suggested the migrants should instead be housed in the mostly Latino Little Village neighborhood, as reported by Laura N. Rodríguez Presa of the Tribune.

“There’s plenty of room in Little Village for their people,” the unidentified speaker said, according to the Tribune. “Please, speak to Little Village and take them over there.”

Jennifer Maddox, who organized Thursday’s rally and is running for 20th Ward alderperson, said she couldn’t put Block Club in touch with the rallygoer who made those comments.

But she said the rallygoer was “speaking their truth” based on the limited information available to them, Maddox said. City officials must communicate better with residents to hear their concerns, she said.

“People say things out of being angry and emotional because they love their community, they value their community and they want to be heard,” Maddox said. “They didn’t have an opportunity to process [the plan for Wadsworth], digest it and sit at the table to come up with some resolutions behind it.”

The rallygoer’s comments reflect racial tensions — and sometimes, explicit xenophobia — toward Latino migrants from residents in the neighborhoods where they’re being housed.

“This type of localized nationalism does nothing to uplift working-class communities of color and only feeds the worst of right-wing politics,” Sen. Robert Peters, who represents the community where Wadsworth is located, tweeted in response. “Chicago must unite and move beyond our segregation and divisions.”

Migrants disembark a bus at Union Station after a 25-hour-long ride from Texas on Sept. 9, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Two residents living near Wadsworth — who did not attend the rally, but spoke to Block Club Thursday morning at the former school — told Block Club they disagreed with the city’s plan. Among one resident’s concerns were a fear of Central American gangs even though most migrants are Venezuelans escaping economic instability. They also said they are frustrated by the Lightfoot administration’s opaque, back-and-forth messaging and a lack of a public safety plan for the Wadsworth site.

Taylor is running for reelection, with Maddox and one other candidate challenging her for the 20th Ward seat in City Council. Taylor and Maddox have both validated residents’ frustrations over the city’s handling of the Wadsworth situation but distanced themselves from xenophobic sentiments.

The Latino migrants will need services in Spanish, so it makes “no sense” to place them in a Black community where few such services exist, Taylor said in October.

But “we’re past” debating whether to use Wadsworth as a shelter, even as community members must be empowered to shape the plans, Taylor said Thursday. “Those migrants need support” and the city has already spent public funds on the plan, she said.

“They spent $1.5 million — they are going to use it,” Taylor said. “I wouldn’t want to see them waste that money either, as much as I feel disrespected and unheard along with my community.”

Delaying the shelter’s opening to seek more resident input is the right thing to do, Maddox said. She called on Lightfoot to attend future community meetings and speak directly with Woodlawn neighbors.

“It’s the lack of transparency which is really fueling the fire for most of this,” Maddox said.

Help Block Club Get
500 More Subscribers!

Subscribe to Block Club now and you’ll get a free 16-by-20-inch Chicago neighborhood print of your choice, helping us reach our goal of getting 500 more subscribers before 2024. Click here to subscribe or click here to gift a subscription.

Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: