City scrambling to determine next steps for migrants in Chicago after camp scrapped by state

Aldermen call for resignation of those in charge of Brighton Park camp for Chicago migrants

Thursday, December 7, 2023
After Brighton Park shelter scuttled, city scrambles to house migrants
Over 13K migrants are in shelters throughout the city, as officials scramble to find another solution after the state shot down the Brighton Park base camp.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago is scrambling to figure out the next step after the state stepped in and called off construction of a migrant base camp Tuesday.

Brighton Park residents said the camp at 38th Street and California Avenue was done under poor planning and a waste of taxpayer money.

The site was going to house 2,000 migrants in military-style winterized base camps.

But work stopped after an environmental report showed potentially dangerous chemicals were found in the ground.

People living in the community have protested the use of the site for weeks, and sought court intervention, as work crews laid gravel and dug up soil.

While the City might be comfortable placing asylum seekers on a site where toxins are present without a full understanding of whether it is safe, the State is not
Gov. JB Pritzker

Attorney Frank Avila represents some of the residents who have been suing the city.

"It was incompetence. It was poor communication, poor planning, poor management. It's a waste of money," Avila said.

Three aldermen are demanding those involved in the Brighton Park migrant camp project resign.

The sprawling 12 acre vacant lot at 115th is now the city's best large-scale hope for sheltering migrants through Chicago's bitter winter months.

"I'm waiting for a report on the environmentals," said 21st Ward Alderman Ronnie Mosley.

Mosley said city crews collected samples from the second potential base camp site, which will eventually become an affordable housing complex, around November 20.

"The administration made a commitment to our community before anyone is placed on the site we will have a community meeting about it," Mosley said.

With the Brighton Park plans officially scrapped by the state, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson's administration has yet to share any alternate plans.

"I haven't heard any solid plan B or like, hey, we're just going to shift to this spot in the next week or weeks, but continuing to find new shelter spaces continuing to build out and expand beds. We are shifting our focus to 27th and Pulaski," said Matt DeMateo.

Now that the state has pulled the plug on the Chicago migrant base camp in Brighton Park, the city is scrambling new shelter locaitons.

DeMateo is the CEO of New Life Centers, which helps feed migrants and provide for other necessities. He said this curveball will not affect his team's mission. The building at 27th and Pulaski will be used to house 240 people consisting of families and those with special needs.

But the governor's office said it will help identify another location.

In a new statement Wednesday, the governor's office said, "IEPA standards on sampling and remediation are clear and known to the City. Those are not the standards the City chose to use. The City did not engage with IEPA or the State before releasing the report and when it did release the report, was unable to explain the lesser standards they did choose to use and how they arrived at those standards. We understand that the City selected this site and holds the lease and is therefore frustrated it cannot move forward. The State shares that frustration. But while the City might be comfortable placing asylum seekers on a site where toxins are present without a full understanding of whether it is safe, the State is not. This site will not move forward as a shelter with State involvement."

The state said it will help speed up the process of setting up a shelter at the former CVS pharmacy in Little Village.

"We're very open for specialized populations, pregnant mothers and children with special needs, potentially to be at this space," 22nd Ward Ald. Mike Rodriguez said.

The Archdiocese has also been working with the state to identify church buildings that could be used as shelters. The first of those is a shuttered grade school in Portage Park.

A coalition of more than a dozen church began picking up migrants from police stations last week.

"We're over 206 in the last six days since we started," said Pastor John Zayas of Peace and Grace Church. "We're marching slowly but surely. Tomorrow we're going to be at District 7 and our goal is to do."

The vacant Catholic school in Portage Park is part of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, and will be the first owned by the Archdiocese to enter into a six month contract with the city to shelter migrants. The city has not provided an exact date for its opening.

"We are in the final stages of having a lease agreement with the City that could then be adapted for use at any of the sites in which they ultimately chose to operate a temporary shelter," the Archdiocese said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Aldermen Anthony Beale of the 9th Ward, Raymond Lopez of the 15th Ward and Anthony Napolitano of the 41st Ward wrote a letter to Johnson demanding those involved in the Brighton Park migrant camp project resign.

The letter said:

"The City of Chicago needs individuals who are serious, deliberative and collaborative in addressing the ongoing migrant asylum-seeker crisis that began in August 2022 and continues to this day. Members of the City Council, philanthropic community, and every day Chicagoans want efforts that are respectful of their taxpayer dollars being spent by your administration to address this humanitarian crisis.

"What we have seen in Brighton Park, however, does not show members of your administration as being either serious, deliberative or collaborative in addressing this issue. Taxpayer funds are now wasted after a failed attempt to build on highly cancerous soil, without permits, without true community engagement, without a plan that is respectful to those whom so many performatively articulate sanctuary for in our city.

"Therefore, we demand the resignation of all involved in this process, including:
- Garien Gatewood
- Beatriz Ponce de Leon
- Lori Lypson
- Alyxandra Goodwin
- Cristina Pacione-Zayas
- Maura McCauley

- Matthew Richards

"Chicago taxpayers cannot afford the mistakes being made by these members of your team failing to meet this moment. We look forward to your swift response on this request."

Johnson's office released a statement, saying: "This is not serious correspondence, yet the individuals it attacks are doing very serious work in addressing the urgency of a humanitarian crisis that has brought nearly 25,000 new arrivals to our city.

"Between November and December of 2022, eight buses of asylum seekers arrived in Chicago. From November 1, 2023, to today, December 6, 2023, Chicago has received 102 buses of asylum seekers.

"From 8 to 102.

"Our administration remains focused on housing and providing resources for new arrivals, as well as unhoused Chicagoans and residents, who, for generations, have experienced neglect and disinvestment in our city.

"We will continue collaborating with anyone taking this work seriously."

There has been an ongoing effort to get migrants out of Chicago police stations and into shelters. So far, more than 13,000 migrants are in shelters across the city.

At the CPD station at 18th and State streets in the South Loop Wednesday morning, some migrants could be seen packing up their things and boarding a bus.

Activists at the Little Village Community Council have identified other vacant buildings that may be able to serve as shelters, including a shuttered West Garfield Park hotel with a troubled past.

"They're ready to go. They have kitchens. Each room has a shower. It has a recreational center. It has a parking lot. It has everything you need right now," said Baltazar Enriquez, president.

Enriquez said the need remains urgent, because even as the number of migrants sleeping at police stations has decreased dramatically, new arrivals continue to be dropped off.

"January and February are the coldest months. So here comes the real cold. You will see people suffer in the streets," he said.