Neighbors attend a meeting hosted by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) about the plans to open a shelter for asylum seekers at 526 N. Western Ave. in West Town on Oct. 12, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — A city-run shelter that will house up to 200 asylum seekers in Ukrainian Village could open as soon as next week.

The shelter will be located in an industrial building at 526 N. Western Ave., near the busy intersection of Western and Grand avenues and about a block from Smith Park.

The facility will house single men, with an initial capacity of 100 people that could eventually grow to 200, officials told neighbors during a community meeting Thursday at Chopin Elementary School, 2450 W. Rice. St.

Renovations are being done to the building and an exact opening date for the shelter has not been determined, but migrants could move in as soon as Wednesday, according to materials distributed at the meeting that said the facility would be operational “no earlier than Oct. 18.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), representatives from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration and Chicago Police shared details and took questions during the often-contentious meeting, where neighbors spoke both in staunch support of and in vehement opposition to the shelter’s location and makeup.

The shelter announcement comes as more than 18,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since last August, many of them bused here by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration and other border-state politicians.

The majority of the arrivals are from Venezuela, which has struggled with political upheaval and an economic crisis resulting in severe food and medicine shortages, surging inflation, rising unemployment and violent crime.

The number of buses carrying migrants to Chicago exploded over the spring and summer, with 297 of 407 total buses arriving since May 12, according to daily numbers provided by a city spokesperson.

That surge has overwhelmed city shelters, forcing the city to set up 25 temporary facilities — and to house thousands of asylum seekers on the floors of police districts.

The influx of people has created a logistical and political crisis across the city. In predominantly-Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, some neighbors have expressed outrage over dedicating resources to migrants while their own communities suffer from decades of disinvestment.

This week, West Loop residents voiced frustrations over two additional shelters in the neighborhood, bringing the area’s total to five. That comes as mutual aid groups and volunteers continue to provide clothes, food and other support to asylum seekers at police stations and across the city.

RELATED: How To Help Migrants In Chicago As Winter Approaches

Villegas on Thursday said opening additional shelters across the city is necessary to house the thousands of migrants arriving in Chicago. But the alderperson stressed that the Ukrainian Village facility’s location — the first in the larger West Town neighborhood — was picked by the mayor’s administration.

“At this point, this is something that the administration has chosen. This is the mayor’s executive decision,” Villegas said. “I’ve expressed my frustration with the mayor’s office due to the short notice and lack of details of a plan to relocate migrants to this location. However, we are facing a humanitarian crisis in our city.”

More than 20 neighbors asked questions at Thursday’s meeting, with topics ranging from potential public safety issues to the city’s long-term plan for housing migrants to how they could support the men who will soon be living in the area.

The Western Avenue shelter will have numerous safety measures such as onsite security, an 11 p.m. curfew and an entry screening that includes a metal detector, among other provisions, officials said.

Area 3 Police Commander Elizabeth Collazo told neighbors that officers would make frequent visits to the shelter while also patrolling nearby. She also encouraged people to call 911 to report any issues.

“CPD will do our part to ensure that your concerns are addressed. That obviously these new arrivals at the shelter, they understand what the rules are, and then they follow them and if they don’t, no one is above the law,” said Collazo, who until recently was commander of the 14th Police District. “We will work with the onsite security to ensure again that you’re not negatively impacted, but we will do our part to address the concerns.”

Beatriz Ponce De León, the city’s deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, spoke about her office’s short-term focus on housing asylum seekers as well as resettling new arrivals permanently in Chicago.

Throughout the meeting, she stressed the city’s need for additional help from the federal government, including not only funding but also expediting work permissions for migrants.

Ponce De León also noted the recent influx of Ukrainian refugees to Ukrainian Village, where the new migrant shelter will be located, but said there are differences between the status of refugees who fled war in Ukraine and those now coming to Chicago.

“What we’re seeing right now with Venezuelans and others coming through the southern border, they’re not formal refugees yet, they are seeking asylum. So there is no federal money that is following them. There are no official resettlement programs to welcome them,” she said. “And our cities have had to take that on, which is why Chicago didn’t have the infrastructure for that … But we are building that infrastructure now.”

All shelters, including the Ukrainian Village one, will be reevaluated every six months by city staff and closed if they determine it is no longer necessary or feasible to keep them in operation, Ponce De León said.

“We’re going to work together to make sure that the first six months that this is going on, we can measure it, and if it’s not the solution, come back and say this is not something we want,” Villegas said at the end of the meeting.

Thursday’s meeting was frequently interrupted by shouts and other outbursts of anger from those in attendance, but also applause and cheers after officials or neighbors made certain comments.

Smith Park resident Lori Dana said afterward she is concerned the “single male” population at the shelter will not mesh well with the area’s many families, and could be a strain on the nearby Smith Park itself as well as the neighborhood’s public transit routes.

“I’m not really worried about these immigrants being criminals. What I’m worried about is loitering, is overwhelming the facilities in the park, littering, wandering through the neighborhood if there isn’t a solid program of activities for those people during the day,” she said. “Two hundred single men are not going to be able to be successfully absorbed into our community.”

During the meeting, others expressed more explicit concerns the shelter would lead to a spike in crime, prompting pushback from officials.

Danny Castañeda with the Department of Family and Support Services said while those concerns were valid, he didn’t want them to become the “dominant narrative” surrounding the shelter.

“If I were an immigrant arriving in Chicago today, I would be placed — me as I am, as I present today — would be placed in a single adult shelter for males. That does not mean, like you said, that I am here to commit crimes or to wreak havoc,” he told neighbors. “We have experience over the last year, over a year now, with multiple single male shelters, especially of this size, and we go without issue. The vast majority of times we go without issue.”

“We can’t assume because they’re single men, they’re criminals,” Ponce De León added.

Numerous neighbors who spoke at the meeting expressed support for the shelter, with some saying they hoped additional facilities would open nearby to house migrants in need.

That included Justin Burchard, who lives a few blocks from the shelter. He said he was excited about the facility coming to the neighborhood, and that Chicago’s Welcoming City status and support for migrants is one of the reasons he chooses to live here.

But he said the outbursts and opposition at Thursday’s meeting left him frustrated.

“I was disappointed by a lot of sort of anti-immigrant rhetoric that was espoused, assumptions that these individuals are criminals, sort of just retrograde politics that I don’t believe has a place or should exist here in Chicago,” Burchard said. “Leave that for other, more conservative right-wing states.”

In addition to opening new shelters across the city, the Johnson administration last month signed a $29 million contract with Virginia-based GardaWorld Federal Services and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services for the firm to “provide temporary housing, on an as-needed basis” for asylum seekers, records show.

That includes “base camp” tent shelters to house migrants, although no specific locations have been announced.

Last week, Johnson told reporters that plan is still moving forward.

“We’re doing … everything in my power to find more brick-and-mortar space. I’m asking our business leaders to do this, our philanthropic leaders to find locations, our philanthropic community to lean in and support the mutual aid workers and support the work that’s being done on the frontlines,” he said during a Friday press conference. “And, you know, we’re still moving forward with the base camps. We still are.”

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