State plans to turn shuttered Southwest Side Kmart store into a shelter for migrants

Michelle Gallardo Image
Monday, February 13, 2023
State plans to turn shuttered Kmart store into a migrant shelter
A shuttered Kmart may soon house several hundred migrants being bused to Chicago from Texas.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Elected officials and community groups are telling the State of Illinois to slow down after learning that a shuttered West Lawn Kmart located at 71st and Pulaski may soon house several hundred migrants being bused to Chicago from Texas.

"We're not looking for just 'here, it's a building with four walls and that's it. It's a roof over your head.' No," said State Rep. Angie Guerrero-Cuéllar (D-22).

Guerrero-Cuéllar expressed concerns over the timeline.

"How fast do you want to turn it around into a shelter where you are talking about having to come in and build out rooms and bathrooms and a kitchen area space that's going to be utilized for privacy," Guerrero-Cuéllar said.

The property is 96,268 square feet, according to a past presentation about the development. It was among a group of Kmart stores across the country that closed in 2016, according to media reports at the time.

The news comes just weeks after the City of Chicago converted Woodlawn's Wadsworth Elementary School into a shelter over the objections of many in the neighborhood.

The opening of that shelter was delayed for weeks after Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and residents in her ward pushed it back to allow for community input.

And when it finally opened last week, some residents stood in front of buses transporting the asylum seekers to the former James Wadsworth Elementary School, 6420 S. University Ave. More than a dozen Chicago police officers stood by as the immigrants were dropped off.

Guerrero-Cuéllar says the community needs time to fully understand what is happening and to develop an adequate safety plan.

"I want to make sure residents understand what the timeline is going to be," Guerrero-Cuéllar said. "Is this going to be a short term shelter? A permanent shelter? How long are they going to be here?"

More than 4,000 migrants have arrived in the Chicago area since the end of August when Texas began busing them to other cities. Many are being housed in suburban hotels. The state today confirmed they are looking at the Kmart location.

"We have already seen 25% of hotel residents advance to their own homes with many more in the pipeline," said the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) in a statement. "For those who need more time to determine their future plans and require ongoing interim shelter, IDHS will be offering asylum seeker families currently residing in hotels, on a voluntary basis, to move to Interim Congregate Housing (ICH) facilities."

Temporary or not, some oppose the idea of dormitory-style housing for migrants.

"You have to share a shower with people," said Johannes Favi of Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. "You have to share everything. You don't have privacy in that kind of setup. And that's mainly the same system used in prison, in jails."

No timeline has been given to convert the Kmart into a shelter. According to Guerrero-Cuéllar, the state has agreed to hit pause for now, while the community's concerns are addressed.

WLS-TV contributed to this report.