• Ben Szalinski
    NOV 17, 2023


    State announces new $160M plan to assist asylum seekers

    Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at a news conference in Chicago on Thursday. [Gov. JB Pritzker/Facebook] 

    The state announced a new plan on Thursday to assist asylum seekers arriving in Chicago in an effort to get more people into winter-safe shelters and resources they need to move out of the shelters. 

    The Department of Human Services is set to spend $160 million on the new efforts, bringing the state’s total cost spending on asylum seekers since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2023 to $638 million as federal aid continues to lag. Thousands of asylum seekers are still living on the floors of airports and police stations or in tents with weather forecasts showing temperatures around 30 degrees by Thanksgiving.  

    Part of the state’s latest intervention is to get the city to move faster, Gov. JB Pritzker said, expressing worry about people living in the cold.  

    "We're stepping in here to try to help and accelerate this process,” Pritzker said at a news conference Thursday. “It isn't moving fast enough. That's why you're seeing people still on the street and we just can't have people on the street."  

    “The city has been operating its own methodology process and it hasn’t moved fast enough,” Pritzker said. “We’ve done a complete data analysis of everything that’s happened really for the last 14 months to determine exactly where the bottlenecks are. And so we’re bringing our resources to try to flatten out those bottlenecks, make sure people are moving through faster and make sure that the city is building shelter faster.”   

    The state is attempting to focus more coordinated attention on people when they arrive in Chicago by devoting $30 million to set up a central intake center to evaluate which asylum seekers don’t need shelter from the state or city because they have a sponsor in the area or plan to travel elsewhere from Chicago. The state hopes this will reduce the number of people going to shelters by 10 percent.   

    More than 24,000 migrants have arrived in Illinois, but only about 8,600 have been able to exit shelters, according to data provided by the governor’s office. The state saw large increases in new arrivals early this fall, taking in nearly 3,000 asylum seekers during the first week of October. That has dropped off significantly to fewer than 800 people over the last three weeks. Officials were able to move more than 1,000 new arrivals out of shelters during the first week of November.   

    The state is also set to spend $65 million on a winterized shelter that could house up to 2,000 people for six months. That shelter may include the controversial soft-sided tents. The city is set to purchase a vacant Jewel property on the city’s South Side that could host a temporary winterized tent camp for migrants.   

    Pritzker said the city is still in charge of finding a shelter location and wouldn’t specify where the shelter would be, though added the state will not be in charge of it. He said the timeline of setting up the shelter depends on where state and city officials “agree is a good spot for that.” Pritzker added the $65 million is supposed to be in addition to any funding the city is already providing for sheltering and not meant to foot their bill. 

    Questions about physical brink and mortar shelters being set up in advance of winter have swirled for months, but Pritzker told reporters to ask the city why a physical shelter hasn’t been conceived.   

    “We’ve been absolutely encouraging the city to find bricks and mortar shelter,” Pritzker said. “I’m not criticizing, I’m just suggesting that now here we are, we’re right up against winter and very cold weather and we want to make sure that no one is left outside.”   

    A spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson did not respond to a question about where the winterized shelter location that will incorporate the state funding will be set up. 

    The state is also putting $65 million down to provide more resources for migrants, including legal and housing services to help residents move out of the shelters. The state is also setting a goal of getting 11,000 new arrivals through the federal Temporary Protected Status and Employment Authorization Document processes by February. These applications help new arrivals get legal authorization for jobs and other life activities, which officials hope will make the migrant self-sustainable and able to move out of shelters.  

    But before migrants can access those resources, they need shelter.  

    “If you can’t get to a shelter, you can’t access the casework and receive the support necessary to get to independent living,” Pritzker said.   

    Both Pritzker and Johnson and their teams have lobbied the White House and Congress for additional funding, but little progress has been made.   

    “We’re being forced to try to solve a federal-sized problem at the state and local level,” Pritzker said.    

    Money for the additional $160 million is coming from existing areas of the Department of Human Services’ budget. Lawmakers did not create any supplemental appropriation plan during the fall veto session. State revenue is running higher than it was at this time last year, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, though potentially higher funding levels than budgeted for a healthcare program for non-citizen residents leaves the size of a budget surplus in question.   

    Lawmakers could be asked to look at an additional appropriation plan when they return in January.   

    Johnson is expected to announce additional steps the city is taking for migrants on Friday. At a news conference Wednesday, Johnson said the city will announce a plan for a “tiered 60-day shelter stay limit” to move new arrivals through shelters faster.  

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