CHICAGO — Hundreds of migrants are still sleeping in tents outside as Chicago’s weather dips below freezing — while city leaders continue to spar over how to tackle a humanitarian crisis 14 months in the making.

During a City Council meeting Wednesday, alderpeople couldn’t unite behind a plan to buy a vacant Far South Side lot for $1 to turn it into a migrant encampment capable of holding as many as 1,500 migrants in winterized tents. 

Allies of Mayor Brandon Johnson, who proposed the tent camps in early September, delayed a vote on buying 6.5 acres at 115th and Halsted streets in Roseland. Many alderpeople said they would vote no in solidarity with Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st), whose ward includes the site and who opposes the tent camp.

It is the latest squabble among City Council members on how to best care for migrants in Chicago, which has received more than 20,000 people since August 2022. Alderpeople implored the Mayor’s Office to come up with a plan, made jabs at opponents and lamented a lack of cooperation. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of people, families and children inside and outside police stations were forced to bundle up against the elements this week as the city got its first snow of the season. 

Asylum seekers huddle in tents outside the Fuller Park police station on Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
How To Help Migrants

• The city has partnered with Instituto del Progreso Latino to create an Amazon wishlist where people can buy supplies for migrants.

• Anyone who wants to donate extra furniture can fill out a form requesting Chicago Furniture Bank pick it up.

• You can find volunteer and donation information on the city’s website.

• Read more: How To Help Migrants In Chicago As Winter Approaches

Migrants who spoke to Block Club said they have jackets, gloves, hats and more — thanks to donations — but it wasn’t enough to keep them warm. And volunteers and mutual aid groups who’ve been on the front lines around the clock to provide essentials worry their work helping migrants is unsustainable without coordination from the city or help from other levels of government. 

Gabriele Strohschen, a former DePaul University professor who lives in Pilsen, said there’s been an outpouring of support from neighbors toward migrants at the local police station, but she worries the city is relying too much on the kindness of neighbors.

“We were not proactive as a city, and so we’re still putting out fires here and there,” Strohschen said. “Maybe the city is doing more than we think, but there has been very little transparency of what they’re really doing and planning.”

Madison Savedra discusses the city’s tent encampment plan:

While migrants at one police station may have ample donated clothes or over-the-counter medications, other stations might not have the same network of mutual aid, Strohschen said.

“The city can’t just rely on the fact that we will empty our closets or go to Costco and buy new coats,” she said. “There’s so many church and individual efforts that are happening, but one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. So, again, you have gaps in service provision.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The majority of migrants were sent here on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as a protest of federal immigration policies. That has left 3,300 people sleeping in police station lobbies and at the city’s airports, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. About 11,600 are living in 24 city-run shelters as of Wednesday — up from 6,600 on Aug. 31. 

Nonprofits, mutual aid partners and neighbors have stressed the need for long-term planning for months. The city has been opening temporary shelters for over a year, which have sometimes been fiercely protested by neighbors who say they’re blindsided by unilateral decision making. 

Most recently, the Mayor’s Office touted the “winterized” tent camps as a necessary decision despite strong criticism of the plan and of GardaWorld Federal Services, the company awarded a $29 million contract to build the camps. 

But even that plan hasn’t gotten much traction over the past several weeks. No construction has started on tent camps. 

Some neighbors have protested, while others have opened their arms. City Council members have criticized a lack of transparency in opening shelters and allocations of funding. 

And in the background of the infighting, people like Josef and his younger brother are sleeping in a tent outside the Near West (12th) District police station, 1412 S. Blue Island Ave.

Volunteers have been bringing coats and other gear for migrants, but Monday evening was still one of the most difficult nights they’ve endured since arriving in early October, said Josef, who asked not to use his last name. 

“You could feel cold everywhere, even with all this,” he said pointing to his hat, gloves and three jackets. 

Josef said he struggled to sleep, especially with the voices of kids in neighboring tents who also couldn’t get comfortable. 

It was “like a nightmare,” the 32-year-old said. 

Blankets, pillows and other personal belongings are scattered inside the Near West (12th) District police station. Credit: Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago

Pilsen Neighbors Rise To The Occasion

At the Near West police station, a few dozen people milled about outside Tuesday afternoon while the temperature hovered above freezing.

Someone poured cups of coffee out of a carton, and kids asked their mothers for hot chocolate.

A young man, Alejandro, was wearing multiple jackets, but he said he could still feel the wind.

“It’s better than nothing, but it’s still not enough,” he said. “And I’m an adult. I can’t imagine how the kids are feeling it.”

A few kids played outside, one riding on a wagon. More children curled up inside on blankets and mats.

Sitting outside, watching her two sons play with other kids, one woman said she’s grateful to have a spot sleeping inside the station with her boys. She said she’s been at the station for over a week now and was surprised at how cold it got. 

“I guess I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “I feel so lucky I had blankets and a roof last night. And the coats.” 

A few men were writing on a piece of cardboard. They planned to walk a few blocks away, to a busier street, where they might get the generosity of drivers stopped at an intersection.

“Please help. I am an immigrant, and I have kids,” one sign read.

LISTEN: One woman is housing 7 asylum seekers while battling terminal cancer:

At times over the past several months, the police station has been home to more than 200 migrants at a time. At one point, the local alderman and volunteers opened their own temporary shelter to get people out of the cramped living quarters.

Ultimately, the shelter was only open for four months, as the upkeep became unmanageable without financial support and coordination from the city. Some volunteers pointed to that as an example of how neighbors want to help, but there’s only so much they can do on their own.

On Tuesday, there were dozens of tents propped on the grass lawn nearby, and the floor inside was nearly entirely covered with blankets, pillows and personal belongings.

Several migrants hung out outside the Near West (12th) District police station Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago

The Near West Side station is nestled between Pilsen and University Village, two welcoming communities where neighbors have held clothing drives, connected people with the local food pantry and coordinated the delivery of other essentials, neighbors said.

Neighbor Cindy Haring said she’s helping out as best she can with efforts like a coat drive. There doesn’t seem to be a big-picture plan from the city volunteers like Haring can tap into, so volunteers are filling in the gaps with immediate assistance, she said.

“It’s so overwhelming and frustrating on behalf of the people who are going through this, and just the frustration about what’s happening or not happening,” she said. “Sometimes it feels rather hopeless, when you’re just doing this little stuff when it’s such a big situation, but I guess you got to start somewhere and do what you can.”

As Haring and other volunteers spread word through their homeowners association about some of the migrants’ immediate needs, a few people are starting a knitting campaign.

“It’s just people who like to knit, and they thought, why not get together and knit hats and scarves and mittens for migrants?” Haring said. “Again, it’s small, but the community is finding out what’s going on, getting involved, and it’s an opportunity to see what else we can do.”

Lupe Puga, another of many mutual aid workers who’ve helped at the police station, said she and others haven’t gotten a cent of reimbursement from the city for their time or financial contributions. They rely on donations and what they can give on their own, she said.

Puga said she can’t spend time worrying about if she’s getting burnt out.

“I can’t dwell on that for too long,” she said. “It’s like anything else in life where I feel like I don’t have an option. We’re just gonna keep trucking.”

A group of asylum seekers pose for a photo in the first snowfall of the year as they await shelter in tents outside the Albany Park police station. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘I Have To Ask For Money To Support My Family’

As Halloween snow flurried down on the city amid low temperatures, dozens of migrants staying in tents outside the Albany Park (17th) District police station, 4650 N. Pulaski Road, looked up with their hands outstretched and tongues out.

For many of the migrants from Venezuela and Colombia, this week was the first time they have seen snow. 

Anais and Carlo, a couple from Venezuela who didn’t want to give their last name, stay in one of the tents along the 3900 block of West Leland Avenue and have been waiting for indoor shelter for over a month, they said.

Like many, Carlo is getting frustrated he can’t find a job and is still sleeping outside with minimal support from city officials. On Tuesday, he stood on the corner of Pulaski Road and Leland Avenue with a large sign to passing cars: “I need a job. Please help.”

“I want the city to put us in a shelter and the option to start a new life here,” Carlo said. “I am looking for work, but it’s difficult to find work. I want to support my family and do something useful. So I have to ask for money to support my family.”

Carlo, an asylum seeker, holds a sign asking for a job on Pulaski Road as asylum seekers await shelter in tents during the first snowfall of the year outside the Chicago Police Department’s 17th District station in Albany Park on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Alejandra, her partner and 4-year-old son have recently been panhandling near the Dollar Tree, 2252 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Logan Square, with other migrant families. They take the Blue Line from the O’Hare bus shelter, where they have stayed for a few weeks, and ask passersby for help — money or jobs.

Wrapped in blankets and wearing snow pants, Alejandra’s partner held a sign out asking those walking by for support. They want the city to open more shelters and make it easier for them to get jobs, Alejandra and her partner said. 

“We come to the street every day asking for a job or better food, just something to survive here,” said Alejandra’s partner, who did not want his name published. “The government needs to make it easier for us to get jobs, because we can’t work without permission, so that’s why we are out here.”

Occasionally, people give money, a hot meal or other donations, but most don’t stop, Alejandra said. 

READ MORE: Chicago Wants Migrants To Be Able To Work Legally. Here’s Why Many Of Them Can’t

Lety Pigoni, a volunteer with Community Care Collective 33, which helps migrants staying at and near the 17th District station, said people desperately need to be inside and volunteers need more help. 

Pigoni’s group recently raised $6,000 at a community fundraiser to help migrants. 

With some people now working, their families have money and are looking for cheap places to live, like basements or attics, Pigoni said.

Interested landlords can contact Ald. Samantha Nugent’s (39th) office, which is helping the migrants and volunteer team, Pigoni said. 

Asylum seekers Michael, Stephanie and their kids pose for a photo in the first snowfall of the year as they await shelter in tents outside the Albany Park police station. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘I’m So Grateful People Are Helping Us Stay Warm, But It’s Just So Cold’

On Wednesday, migrants at the Ogden (10th) District police station, 3315 W. Ogden Ave., surveyed their makeshift tents and belongings after this week’s snow. 

People rearranged their tents and added heavy plastic tarps on top to better brace them against the cold winds. Some people packed dead leaves below their tents to insulate the bottom and protect their body heat from the cold of the concrete sidewalks, while others took inventory of their dry clothes. 

Migrants from Venezuela have never experienced cold like this before and don’t know about layering or other techniques for conserving body heat, said Elvia Rodriguez, a volunteer with the mutual aid group Chicago Police Station Response Team

“We’ve been warning the migrants since September, letting them know it’s going to be winter, and that we were going to be bringing heavier clothes and blankets,” Rodriguez said. “There were folks, back in April, when some cool, rainy weather I’m used to happened, and they were freezing even then.” 

Even now, migrants keep arriving from Texas wearing flip flops, shorts and other clothes that are appropriate for weather along the southern border but dangerous in Chicago’s fall and winter, Rodriguez said. 

“A lot of the volunteers have been gearing up and trying to be ready for this time, ordering things like thermals and bringing those out,” Rodriguez said. “And we’re trying to make sure that everybody has at least a yoga mat or camping pads for people to use inside their tents or on the floor inside the station. Because the station floor is cold and hard, too.” 

Asylum seekers living at the Ogden (10th) Police District, 3315 W. Ogden Ave, on Nov. 1, 2023. Migrants have been using nearly 40 tents for shelter as the temperatures drop. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Rodriguez was helping migrants find warmer clothes and tidy up the front of the police station Wednesday. 

The low winter sun causes the district building to cast a shadow over the tents closest to it, which meant snow and ice from the night before was still frozen onto the shelters into the afternoon. 

Tents further away are warmer during the day because they’re in full sun, but they can be colder at night because they don’t have the building to act as a windbreak, some migrants said. 

Warming buses come at night, and migrants take turns going inside, but as the temperatures continue to drop, volunteers worry about how long it’s taking the city to move migrants into proper shelters, they said. 

“We’re trying to get tarps to cover as many of the tents as possible right now, because these summertime tents are not going to be able to hold up to the cold, the rain and the snow,” Rodriguez said. “And we’re still on the lookout for cold-rated winter sleeping bags. That would be fantastic, if people could donate those for the migrants.” 

Michael Richard Romero and José Leal arrived in Chicago with their wives and children Tuesday night from Texas. They were taken to the West Side station and placed inside tents outside the building. 

Asylum seekers living at the Ogden (10th) Police District, 3315 W. Ogden Ave, on Nov. 1, 2023. Migrants have been using nearly 40 tents for shelter as the temperatures drop. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

The cold shocked the Venezuelan families, and they’d never seen snow, but volunteers have been kind in getting them appropriate clothes, they said. 

“The cold is so forceful. I’m so grateful people are helping us stay warm, but it’s just so cold,” Romero said.

The families lost most of their belongings — including their phones and little cash they had — while crossing the Rio Bravo into Texas, Romero said. 

In Texas, Leal’s father-in-law got separated and placed on a separate bus going north, he said. Since they lost their phones, they don’t know where he is now or how to get in contact with him, Leal said. 

“They were putting people on buses to Chicago, Denver and New York City when we got to Texas, and they were putting families on some buses and single men on others,” Romero said. “I’m not sure what happened in the confusion, but they saw José’s father-in-law and put him on a different bus than us, and we’ve been trying to find him since we arrived yesterday. We think he’s in Chicago.” 

Asylum seekers go through donated clothes as they await shelter from the cold temperatures in tents outside the Chicago Police Department’s 2nd District station in Fuller Park on Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A Chicagoan Says A Prayer For Migrants In Fuller Park

As the windchill worsened Monday afternoon, Erik sat in a tent alongside his wife and two sons outside the Wentworth (2nd) Police District station in Fuller Park, 5101 S. Wentworth Ave.

They were eating from a tray of Kentucky Fried Chicken while trying to stay out of the gusting winds of cold air.

The father shuddered as he talked about the cold and heavy rain that fell over the weekend.

“Here, we wait for the cold to fall. If snow is going to fall, well, we will see if we can endure,” Erik said. “Yesterday we had a hard time. … The temperature was pretty bad. … This cold makes you shiver very quickly.”

Erik walks his sons Stiven and Xavier to see a Chicago Fire truck as asylum seekers await shelter from the cold temperatures in tents outside the Chicago Police Department’s 2nd District station in Fuller Park on Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Erik’s sons scampered about outside the police station with other children — playing in a toy car, sharing candies and excitedly watching a Fire Department truck that had pulled up.

Erik knew he wanted to come to Chicago after watching “a lot of Chicago PD.”

But now, Erik and his family are waiting for a warm place to live. The wait is making him anxious, especially for his sons, he said.

“The little one, he gets sick more than anything else … very quickly,” Erik said.

Erik’s family is one of the dozens living in tents next to the police station.

“It’s pretty hard to get used to,” he said, adding that some staying near his family have been both friendly and difficult to be around.

Philip Watson donates clothes and shoes to asylum seekers amid the cold temperatures outside the Chicago Police Department’s 2nd District station in Fuller Park on Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

People hung around the station waiting for donations to arrive. Many stood in sandals, hoping for a pair of boots.

Multiple cars arrived Monday afternoon as people donated various items — clothes, shoes, cash and more. The driver would pull up and migrants would excitedly grab the items to share.

Philip Watson, with the group Jesus Chicago, has delivered donations to migrants at stations across Chicago alongside the faith-based team. He came to the Fuller Park station Monday afternoon with bags of clothes.

Speaking no Spanish, Watson pulled out Google Translate on his phone to let the asylum seekers know what he had brought.

“Mujeres! Calientes!” he said, trying to tell women he had warm clothes. Migrants formed a line near his car as he handed out boxes of shoes and more. When he ran out of supplies, Watson said a prayer and his translator app typed it out in Spanish for the migrants to read.

“We get near tears just thinking about them at night. It’s hard to even go to sleep sometimes,” Watson said. “Because I know what this cold is.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson walks into a City Council meeting on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Johnson Defends His Choices At City Hall

The ongoing political crisis rolled through City Hall Wednesday, where alderpeople sparred over whether Chicago should continue to call itself a “sanctuary city” and if the city should buy a vacant lot at 115th Street and Halsted Street to build a migrant tent encampment. 

Johnson remained steadfast in his administration’s decision to build tent encampments to house migrants and said they would be ready before winter — even though Halloween saw snow and freezing temperatures. 

“It snowed, but winter is not here yet. And so my goal is still to make sure that we have base camps before winter,” Johnson said during news conference Wednesday. “Look, the federal government and the state have to do more. The people in Chicago have been incredibly resilient and patient. And clearly that patience is running short.” 

Alderpeople have become increasingly frustrated over what they say is a lack of communication between the Johnson administration and their offices over potential shelter sites. Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who is among those who opposed the Far South Side tent camp site, said Chicago is “still a city without a plan.” 

“We have to come up with a plan. The problem is, none of us have heard an articulated plan in how we’re going to move forward this month, in two months, six months from now,” Lopez said. “Where the funding is going to come through, who’s going to pay for it, and who we’re going to hold responsible at the federal level?” 

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) reacts at a City Council meeting on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Johnson dismissed those critiques, saying his administration has been as forthcoming and open with alderpeople as possible since he told them the city was pursuing tent encampments in September. 

“No one is caught off guard or by surprise. No one,” Johnson said. “And as we continue to assess, there are individuals, of course, that wish we had more time. But we live in Chicago. We got to get people out of police stations. People cannot sleep outside. They can’t be on the floors at airports. So we’re going to continue to deliver the message emphatically and transparently.”

Johnson said he plans to travel to Washington, D.C., on Thursday to advocate for additional federal funding to support migrant housing and resettlement. The trip follows a letter sent to President Joe Biden over the weekend by Johnson and four other big-city mayors calling for more resources and expedited work authorization for asylum seekers. 

“We’re going to push the federal government just like we’re going to push the state of Illinois to do its part,” Johnson said. “Look, Chicago is leaning in. We have borne the brunt of the responsibility here. That’s not an equitable distribution of how government should cooperate. And so we’re providing a framework in how we can do that.”

While they wait for the city to decide its path, some neighbors are still determined to do their part.

“Chicagoans, we need to have compassion, and we need to have mercy,” said Watson, the neighbor donating clothes in Fuller Park. “Just imagine if your child was out here. Imagine if your brother, your sister, was out here in a cold like this.”

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