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Chicago scrambles to house migrants as winter draws near

Washington, Nov 26 (Prensa Latina) As Chicago’s brutal winter looms, city and state officials are scrambling to find shelter for more than 2,000 migrants now living at airports, police stations and on the city’s streets, plus long-term housing for thousands more already crammed into overcrowded shelters.

But advocates question whether newly announced measures from state and city officials intended to help migrants settle more quickly into the city will work as planned or contribute to the worsening of a humanitarian crisis spurred by the busing of thousands of people to the city from Texas.

“So much is riding on Chicago winter, and we can’t afford for anyone in our beautiful state or city to freeze because we didn’t figure this out, to die because we didn’t figure this out,” said Karina Ayala-Bermejo, the CEO and president of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, which is involved in case management and other programs for migrants.

As of Monday morning, there were 12,251 migrants living in 26 active city-run shelters, with another 2,175 waiting in O’Hare and Midway airports, as well as inside and outside of police stations, for placement, according to a city census of new arrivals. According to the city, more than 21,700 asylum-seekers and migrants have arrived since August 2022, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s migrant busing program reached Chicago.

The influx has put a strain on Chicago’s network of social services. There have not been enough shelter beds for everyone in need. And the process of moving people from temporary shelter to permanent, independent housing has been painfully slow, advocates have said.

“It’s all about, how do you triage an ecosystem that is already in crisis?” Ayala-Bermejo said.

The process of finding housing, in particular, has been “very difficult” for 35-year-old Johan Martinez Hernandez, who has been searching for an apartment in Chicago for three months while staying at a shelter with about 600 other migrants. He, like thousands of others, was bused to the city and has since struggled to find his footing.

As he was preparing last week to visit yet another apartment, Martinez Hernandez was hopeful it would finally be his ticket out of the packed shelter.

“I really hope they rent to me,” Martinez Hernandez, who traveled to the U.S. seeking asylum from Venezuela, said in Spanish.

The move into an apartment, he said, would allow him to get a legal job and bring stability to his life in a new city.

“You can’t survive like this forever,” Martinez Hernandez said.

As part of a plan to move people out of shelters and eventually into permanent housing, the state and city have put new restrictions on the assistance migrants can receive, reducing both the number of days they can stay in shelter and also the amount of rental assistance they can receive, both with the stated goal of moving people more quickly into independent living.

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that the state would invest an additional $160 million to address “bottlenecks” in the “asylum-seeker resettlement pipeline.” According to the governor, that includes: $65 million to expand case management, housing assistance and legal services; another $65 million to create “winterized” temporary housing for up to 2,000 migrants and ensure safe and warm places for migrants to live during winter months; and $30 million to launch an intake center.

The state also is reducing rental assistance for asylum-seekers in shelters to three months of rent, down from up to six months. The governor’s office said this would “allow all current shelter residents to access” the rent-assistance program. But going forward, the program will not be available to new migrant arrivals, the state said, adding, “housing assistance will still be provided to support the housing search process, tenant rights, and landlord-tenant communications.”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, meanwhile, announced that the city would begin limiting the amount of time a person can stay in shelter to 60 days.

“The goal of the 60-day limited stay policy is to accelerate how new arrivals engage with the emergency shelter system,” the city said on its website. “The City can continue to support existing residents on a pathway to self-sufficiency while also maintaining our ability to meet the immediate needs of new individuals and families arriving in Chicago daily, including providing direct access to public benefits and other supports during their 60-day stay.”

The city said migrants may be granted temporary extensions “under extenuating circumstances,” including “medical crises or extreme cold weather.” The city said that if a migrant is not eligible for an extension and has not yet secured housing, they may return to the city’s “landing zone” and request a new shelter placement.

Advocates said those changes could hinder efforts to find housing and potentially lead to asylum-seekers falling through the cracks and out onto the streets in plunging temperatures.

“This is like a gut punch for me,” the Rev. Kenneth Phelps, who helps migrants find housing and is involved in several programs to assist them transition to life in Chicago, said of the reduction in rent assistance. “That binds our hands so much.”

Phelps said it had already been difficult to find landlords and property managers willing to rent to migrants with up to six months of rental assistance, as most asylum-seekers lack documentation usually provided during the rental process and do not yet have work permits. He feared that reducing the program would make the process more daunting.

Ayala-Bermejo said a 60-day limit for shelter stays would require “intensive case management” to make sure that migrants don’t lose out on housing opportunities and social services.

“We have to make sure that we’re not tossing out all the good that has been invested in that individual, in that family, that will be lost if they’re just hitting the ground and adding to the unhoused,” she said.

She also said the investment from the city, state and federal government should follow the migrants beyond housing, “to work authorization, work development, and work opportunities, so that they can sustain themselves.”

“You cannot then pull the carpet from under them once they have a job,” she said. “You have to continue to invest in the case management and support services that are going to help them stay employed, and then continue to pay their rent and not turn over and join the unhoused population.”

But Matt DeMateo, the chief executive officer of New Life Centers of Chicagoland, a nonprofit that works with the state on resettlement, said that while the reduction to three months of rental assistance may provide a challenge in finding housing, it could ultimately allow more migrants to benefit from the program.

DeMateo believes another aspect of the state’s plan — submitting 11,000 applications for work authorization and temporary protected status by February — also will improve the migrant crisis.

“Once that opens up, people can get on a stable path,” he said. “With all of those investments, the idea is how do we better the whole system, so we can get through this and get past these bottlenecks.”

The state said last week that since August 2022, some 9,000 migrants have been resettled — either by being placed in permanent housing or with relatives — both inside the state of Illinois and in other states.

Oscar Peñalver Sanchez hopes to soon be among them. After living for about a year in a shelter with more than 150 other migrants, he recently moved into his own apartment.

“It’s a huge relief because it’s difficult to stay in the shelters for so long,” he said in Spanish, but added that he was grateful to have had “somewhere to sleep and lay our heads.”

He is in the process of applying for a work permit, which he hopes will put him on track to becoming financially independent.