BRIGHTON PARK — Southwest Siders continue to push back on city plans to house migrants in a tent encampment in Brighton Park.
Hundreds of neighbors packed into a community meeting Tuesday night at Thomas Kelly High School, 4136 S. California Ave., to hear from city officials about their proposal to house up to 2,000 migrants at a tent camp at 38th Street and California Avenue.
The meeting came just days after people protesting the proposal attacked Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) and one of her staffers. The Tuesday meeting was less combative but still tense.
At times, neighbors shouted at the panel of city officials and broke into chants. Those opposed to the tent camp yelled things like, “Send them back,” and “No queremos venezolanos” — meaning, “We don’t want Venezuelans” in Spanish. They slammed the city for not better notifying them of the proposal ahead of time or taking their input into consideration.
Madison Savedra discusses the city’s tent encampment plan:
Several neighbors also spoke up in support of the city’s plans.
About 500 people — families with children — would move into the tent camp at first, with an expected maximum of about 2,000 residents, said Cristina Pacione Zayas, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s deputy chief of staff.
A possible move-in date isn’t clear yet because city departments are still assessing the site, Pacione Zayas said. If the site clears assessments, it would take at least four days to set up the physical camp and several more days before welcoming residents, according to a city fact sheet.
The “winterized base camps” were suggested by Mayor Brandon Johnson last month as a way to get thousands of migrants out of police stations and provide them a form of shelter as colder temperatures arrive.
Critics have been vocal in their opposition of the plan and of GardaWorld Federal Services, the company that received a $29 million city contract to build the camps. But city leaders have defended the decision as necessary since more than 19,000 migrants have arrived to the city since August 2022.
The influx of asylum seekers has overloaded the city’s shelter system, leaving local leaders scrambling for temporary housing for large numbers of people as the weather cools.
About 3,100 people are sleeping in police station lobbies and at O’Hare Airport, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. About 11,700 people are living in city-run shelters as of Tuesday — up from 6,600 on Aug. 31.
Many asylum seekers are from Venezuela, which has struggled with an economic crisis that has caused severe food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, widespread unemployment and violent crime.
Ramirez, whose ward includes the tent site, said last week the city was reviewing the 10-acre site in Brighton Park as a possible location for proposed tent camps intended to house up to thousands of migrants.
City officials confirmed this week the site was “viable,” meaning a tent camp will be built there if it passes all assessments.
City departments began work last week to determine if the site is suitable, Lori Lypson, deputy mayor of infrastructure and services, said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The land has been tidied up, lighting in the alley and along the streets have been upgraded and now the city is doing environmental testing to confirm the site is safe for people to stay there, since it has a history of industrial use, Lypson said.
If it’s determined the site needs remediation, meaning a more thorough environmental cleanup, the city will do so, Lypson said.
The Sun-Times reports that the land was previously home to a zinc smelter, a potentially toxic operation. Environmental advocates in the area told the paper they feared the city was rushing the assessment.
At the start of the meeting, Ramirez reiterated she was left in the dark on this plan. The mayor’s administration spoke directly with the private owner of the land without looping in her office, she told meeting attendees.
“I share in your frustration,” Ramirez said to the crowd. “I did not have aldermanic prerogative in this. The city is asking a lot of Brighton Park with this plan. This is temporary, but we all stay here, we’re from here, and we’ll be here.”
During the public comment section of the meeting, many neighbors spoke fiercely against the tent camp plan.
“I want them to have buildings, but I don’t want it to be here,” one woman said through a translator.
Another neighbor said she thought the administration’s lack of transparency reflects Johnson’s “disrespect.”
“What’s the point of having a meeting if you’re just going to do what you want?” she asked.
Neighbor Michael Rodriguez said he is concerned about people not being housed properly.
“It’s inhumane to have people living in cloth tents,” he said.
Beatriz Ponce de Leon, the city’s deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, said no one wants to see asylum seekers sleeping on police station floors or outside the stations in tents unprotected from the winter. That leaves these base camps as a “last solution,” she said.
“It is not the preferred solution. If we want to help 4,000 people be indoors before winter, we need to use this solution for right now,” Ponce de Leon said.
Liz Gres, a 12th Ward resident, said it doesn’t have to be an “either or” situation — the neighborhood can thrive at the same time as it welcomes new neighbors.
“This past week has really saddened and angered me,” Gres said. “A small group of individuals has been taking advantage of a humanitarian crisis to sow anti-immigrant sentiment, spread misinformation and divide neighbors against each other. That does not reflect my community.”
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