CHICAGO (AP) — As the first blast of wintry weather hit Chicago, dozens of migrant families without a place to live were moved off snowy city streets and into the basement of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in a nearby suburb.
The last-minute, temporary solution around 1 a.m. Wednesday, coordinated by volunteers and suburban officials, came as Chicago and other cities have struggled to house the growing population of asylum-seekers ahead of the deep winter months. Mayor Brandon Johnson has proposed winterized tents, like in New York, and more shelters to house migrants who are sleeping in police stations, airports and the streets. But volunteers, churches and some aldermen say the response is too slow and inefficient.
“Good will and charity cannot fix systemic problems,” said Annie Gomberg, who is part of a volunteer network that coordinates meals and clothing at police stations. “This is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of planning.”
Similar issues could occur as wintry weather closes in on New York, which is struggling to accommodate a growing migrant population, and Denver, which was prompted to loosen its rules on how long migrants are kept in shelter during a recent cold snap.
More than 20,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since last year, largely under the direction of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
More than 3,000 are living inside airports and police stations while they await shelter placements, including in park district field houses, although some have moved into tents in adjacent streets and vacant lots due to overcrowding. The end goal, officials say, is permanent independent housing.
Volunteer organizations, who have provided the bulk of meals and clothing, say they’re now giving winter survival tips, too. Layering clothing is a novel concept for most of the migrants who are used to warmer climates. Temperatures dipped to the low 30s (around 0 Celsius) by Wednesday.
Many are from Venezuela, where a political, social and economic crisis has pushed millions of people into poverty. At least 7.3 million have left the country, with many risking a dangerous route by foot to the United States.
The donated tents are lined with cardboard, blankets and draped with tarps to ward against the cold.
Gleicy Martinez, 27, from Venezuela, has lived for three weeks in a tent outside a Chicago police station with her two children, including a 9-year-old who is blind.
They rarely leave the tent because of the cold. When the storm hit Tuesday, they went inside the police station but it was too full. They walked to a nearby Target store for warmth.
“The snow caught us unexpectedly,” Martinez said Wednesday. “We didn’t know it was going to snow.”
City officials call the migrants’ arrival an inherited issue that they’re trying to address.
Johnson’s administration has opened over a dozen more shelters since he took office in May. City officials have scouted locations for winterized tents, but details are sparse. Johnson estimates Chicago will spend roughly $255 million on the migrant crisis in 2023.
Johnson told reporters Wednesday that his goal was still to get migrants into shelters by winter.
“I’m working every single day to create spaces to move people out of police stations and do it in a way that is dignified,” he said. “It’s cold but winter is not here yet.”
This week, the city publicized its cold weather efforts, including providing 16 “warming buses” at police stations during overnight hours. Last month, the city touted its partnerships with outside organizations.
On Wednesday, Johnson and the mayors of four other cities wrote to President Joe Biden, seeking a meeting to secure more federal resources.
Those cities included New York, where thousands of migrants are sleeping in climate-controlled tents erected on empty parking lots and athletic fields, as well as a former airport runway. The facilities are kept warm by industrial heaters.
New York hasn’t experienced the same issues as Chicago, yet, but that could soon change: Local officials want to suspend a unique legal agreement guaranteeing overnight shelter to those without housing.
As New York struggles to accommodate its growing migrant population, Mayor Eric Adams has suggested that new arrivals may soon be forced to sleep in the streets, a “terrible situation” he’s painted as inevitable.
In Denver, some migrants are living in tents, including over the weekend when the lows reached 12 degrees (minus 11 Celsius). Denver suspended its limits on how many days migrants can stay at a shelter because of the weather, but restored them as temperatures reached above 20 degrees Tuesday and kicked roughly 200 people out.
Elis Aponte, 47, from Venezuela, was staying in a tent in Denver. She said she feared she would freeze to death going to a bathroom at a gas station across the street. She wore a red puffy jacket and ski gloves,
“It was freezing, freezing cold,” she said, noting her five blankets.
In Oak Park, just 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Chicago, the Rev. Kathy Nolte received a call from officials around 1 a.m. asking if she could open up her church. Within minutes, a bus of migrants had arrived at the doors of Good Shephard, mostly families with young children.
Later, she performed a blessing for them and their journey. She hopes the church shelter is short-lived.
“We got them into a place where they could have warmth and a sense of their space,” she said.