December 4, 2023

A Cry for Better Housing: Protesters Challenge Chicago’s Tent Cities

By Brigitte Espinoza-Vallejo

Migrant tent city protesters photo Protesters outside the controversial “tent city” being built at 38th Street and California Avenue. (Photo/Brigitte Espinoza-Vallejo)

Editor’s note: Migrants interviewed for this story are identified by first name only.

Jessica, 22, came to Chicago from Ecuador with her 7-month-old girl, 6-year-old boy, and her husband this fall to seek asylum.

Together, they crossed through the Darién Gap, a dangerous jungle located between Colombia and Panama.

On May 17, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly to avoid impeachment, causing thousands more to leave their country. So far this year, a record-breaking 415,104 migrants have entered the Darién jungle to get to the U.S.

Upon her arrival, Jessica and her family sheltered outside one of Chicago’s police districts, but the cold and unhealthy conditions forced her family to find a rental.

“It was very bad because they only gave us tents,” she said. “They put us in tents and people would come to give us mattresses and clothes. It was very bad. Sometimes rats would pass by and everything was bad. So we decided to get out … to see a rental because my children were in the streets. I didn’t want them to get sick,” Jessica said.

Fortunately, Jessica’s husband found work so they could rent an apartment in Pulaski; however, thousands of asylum-seekers are still staying outside police stations and others are living at O’Hare International Airport, most of whom are from Venezuela.

Read more: Migrant crisis intensifies as tent cities emerge

Chicago winters are known to be brutal. Although winter is a couple of weeks away, wind chills have dropped as low as 1 degree in the early morning of Nov. 28, according to the National Weather Service.

As temperatures fall and Chicago officials struggle to house asylum-seeking migrants, safety concerns rise over providing hundreds of asylum-seekers sleeping outside police districts with safe and warm housing.

On Sept. 12, Mayor Brandon Johnson signed a $29.4 million contract with GardaWorld, a private security firm, to relocate asylum-seeking migrants awaiting shelter to “winterized base camps” located primarily on the South Side. The first two are being built at 38th Street and California Avenue in Brighton Park, and 115th and Halsted Streets in Morgan Park.

According to city data from Nov. 29, 23,100 asylum seekers have come to Chicago since the first bus from Texas arrived in August 2022. So far, 8,326 have been resettled and 1,184 are awaiting placement.

District 12 police station migrants photo District 12 police station houses many migrants, as well as some camping outside in tents. (Photo/Brigitte Espinoza-Vallejo)

For weeks, protests in front of the construction site on 38th Street and California Avenue have stemmed from concerns over the city’s lack of communication and migrant safety.

With construction well underway, they’re calling for the city to provide better housing solutions, quickly.

Judy Mai, a longtime resident in Brighton Park, has been protesting for almost a month against the city’s construction of the tent city.

“All the community, all the residents feel upset,” she said. “We’re not against any migrants, but you need to make a good way to make the residents happy and the migrants happy. You cannot just build a camp here and just let them live here in the cold season. That’s not right. You need to put them in some building or somewhere like … get them a home, not just a camp.”

She also expressed concern over soil pollution and the viability of the land due to its history of industrial use. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the site contained a zinc smelter, a potentially toxic operation that uses heat and chemicals to extract metals, and an underground diesel fuel tank removed in 1986. The site will need to pass through international environmental inspections before it can open.

The issue emerged in an open letter to constituents from Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) on Nov. 25 that reported the presence of toxic metals in the soil. More details of the environmental impact study are expected to be released soon, officials say.

An Unresolved Crisis

Since 1985, Chicago has maintained a sanctuary city status; however, the city’s poor preparation to manage a crisis has left a shortage of city-run shelters. In November, 26 city-run shelters have temporarily housed 13,034 asylum-seeking migrants.

As of August 2023, more than 7.7 million people have fled Venezuela to escape economic and political instability. That comes six years after then-President Donald Trump increased sanctions against Venezuela to undermine President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government.

While sanctions were imposed long before 2017, they contributed to the destabilization of Venezuela and forced the migration of millions because they prevented Venezuela from producing and selling oil.

Considering that Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, a combination of President Maduro’s exploitation of the oil and these sanctions proved to be perilous to the economy and well-being of the people.

Dr. Xóchitl Bada, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, put the historical mass exodus from Venezuela into perspective:

  • A shortage in food, water, and basic health services from being unable to import essential goods sent millions fleeing Venezuela, thousands of which traveled to the U.S.
  • The U.S. is seen as a relatively stable country. Asylum-seekers travel through dangerous conditions for better education, work opportunities, and overall, a better future.
  • The failure of Chicago officials to house migrants for over a year has proved the importance of supporting migrants while they integrate into society, however, tent cities are not the solution.

“In my opinion, it will be much better to repurpose existing facilities – the city since 2008 [has had] a lot of vacant housing buildings because of the housing crisis of the Great Recession in 2008,” Bada said.

“Those are still vacant. The city could take them and repurpose them. So once the crisis ends, you solve the homeless crisis because you then give those houses…to all these people who are homeless, that are not migrants that are like us, like welders, citizens, people who live here for a long time.”

As debates over the construction of tent cities intensify, many interviewed for this story agree that time is running out. The delay in decision-making between city officials could have resulted in effective housing solutions before the harsh Chicago winter months.

“I think they are not going to be built in time because it’s too late and there’s been so much fight inside of the City Council and they have been wasting precious time in this city that it’s very much very cold,” Bada said. “So what I think is that it’s a missed opportunity by the administration, by the local administration to really create lasting solutions for the homeless crisis.”

Migrant tents outside the district 12 police station photo Migrants live in these tents across the street from the District 12 police station. The Willis Tower looms in the background.(Photo/Brigitte Espinoza-Vallejo)

How to help

To find information about how you can help Chicago’s new arrivals, visit the official website of the City of Chicago for donations or volunteer opportunities.

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