Coalition demands Oak Park step up to help Chicago migrants: 'Our borders are porous'

Tuesday, October 24, 2023
Coalition demands Oak Park step up to help Chicago migrants
A coalition demanded Oak Park step up to help Chicago migrants during a rally and march Monday night.

OAK PARK, Ill. (WLS) -- With a few dozen asylum-seekers in tow to amplify their call to action, a small cluster of community activists took off marching toward Oak Park.

It's a short walk, just a few blocks, across an invisible boundary separating the city from the suburb along Madison Street.

"The problem does not start and end in Chicago. It extends elsewhere. We share that responsibility," said community activist Betty Alzamora. "We have to step up to our collective responsibility as a good neighbor. Our area, starting with Oak Park and the neighboring municipalities, we are fortunate and blessed with lots for resources. Our borders are porous."

The Far West Side 15th District Police Station is just one of many spilling over onto the sidewalk with migrants making a temporary home. The tents can only provide so much protection, and activists are asking neighboring suburbs to step up.

"Relieve some of the burden that's been forced onto the city, because, again, it is a state issue. It's not a city problem," Crystal Gardner said.

In front of Oak Park Village Hall, some of the suburb's residents are almost begging to help migrants.

"Oak Park has space. We should be welcoming to all these new folks that are coming," said resident Derek Eder.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, a hot shower, a chance to prepare a home-cooked meal and clothes to bring on the journey are offered at the recently repurposed rectory of Oak Park's St. Catherine-St Lucy Catholic Church to migrants living three blocks away at the Chicago Police Department's 15th District.

SEE ALSO: 4 taken to hospital from South Loop CPD station where many migrants in Chicago are staying

But, as the number of migrants living at the Austin police station rises, so does the cost of helping them.

"There were, I think, 50 people, maybe 60, coming; now it's gone up over 120. And, a water bill that would have been maybe a couple hundred dollars went up to $4,000," Father Carl Morello said.

With an estimated $9,000 to $10,000 water bill looming for next month, the urgency to obtain public funding, not to mention a larger hot water tank, is there.

"With the grants manager, we're talking about the possibility of the village using some of those funds to defray the costs of water and any other expenses," said Matthew Brophy, who handles parish operations for St. Catherine-St. Lucy-St. Giles parish.

The church is now asking the Village of Oak Park for assistance.

"What we are doing is wonderful, but it is not sustainable," Morello said.

Its money village trustees do seem eager to provide from a federally-funded state grant.

"We need to figure out everything we can do as a community to at the very least bridge the gap," said trustee Brian D. Straw.

The $150,000 grant the village received is currently only allowed to be spent on planning.

Now, village leaders are trying to work through the bureaucratic process to find out how they can use the money, which, they say, isn't nearly enough, in the most direct possible way for asylum-seekers.

A spokesperson for the village said that an update on the grant money and its use will be provided during Monday evening's board meeting. There will also be updates on other ways to assist asylum seekers in Oak Park.

Oak Park released a statement Monday evening, saying:

"The Village of Oak Park staff have been diligently monitoring the influx of individuals seeking asylum in the greater Chicagoland area over the past several months.
"To that end, the Village of Oak Park applied for the Supporting Municipalities for Asylum Seeker Services (SMASS) grant in September in the amount of $7.5 million to serve as a passthrough to organizations such as Housing Forward, Catholic Charities, Beyond Hunger, PCC Wellness, Greater Chicago Legal Clinic, West Cook YMCA, and Thrive Counseling Center as those organizations have established methods and infrastructure to support asylum seeker's access to transitional housing, food, wraparound services, legal assistance and health and wellness. The Village received notice on Oct. 6, 2023 that Oak Park received $150,000 to assist in preparation and planning for future opportunities to support asylum seekers.

"On Oct. 19, and again on October 23, Village staff participated on a call with the program consultants for the SMASS grant from BRicK Partners, LLC, to discuss the award and each group's vision for how the monies should be utilized. Oak Park officials also inquired directly to the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus regarding plans for the program's unallocated funding. Conversations between all parties, including between the Village and the partner agencies, remain ongoing at this time.

"The Village of Oak Park is not currently aware of any asylum seekers who are being housed on public property (i.e. police station, Village Hall, etc.) or by partner organizations within the village limits. Village staff is aware that asylum seekers who are based at police stations within Chicago, specifically the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) 15th and 25th Districts, are regularly coming into Oak Park where they are able to receive access to showers, laundry, respite, and childcare services during the day at places like St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church. Individuals utilizing those services rotate throughout the week, and approximately 200 individuals are using those services on a weekly basis.

"The Oak Park Public Health Department is hosting vaccine clinics this week for those who do not have health insurance or who have health plans that do not cover the cost of vaccines. A clinic planned for Thursday, Oct. 26 will include both COVID-19 and childhood vaccines required to attend school. Officials see this as ideal for migrant families or families who are seeking asylum given that Spanish-language interpreters will be on site to assist in the process. The Oak Park Public Health Department is also working with local schools from District 97 and District 200 to ensure families that could benefit from this opportunity are aware of the clinic.

"Dr. Danielle Walker, Village of Oak Park Chief Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officer, recently visited the CPD's 15th District headquarters in the Austin neighborhood to meet with local volunteers who are actively assisting asylum seekers. During this meeting, volunteers emphasized the need for immediate housing, legal assistance, drinking water, laundry support, and food delivery as some of the top pressing needs for migrants. The visit underscored the Village's urgency and showed that Oak Park staff is committed to thinking through positive solutions.

"Village of Oak Park officials continue to seek ways to best support asylum seekers through collaboration in Oak Park and determine the feasibility of immediate, short-term and long-term solutions."