• Michael McDevitt
    MAY 05, 2023

    Harris opposes migrant shelter at South Shore High School, says community should have been consulted following rowdy town hall

    From left, Ald. Michelle Harris (8) and Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) observe a community meeting about the plan to temporarily house migrants at the former South Shore High School building. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and Ald. Michelle Harris (8) hosted a community meeting Thursday evening in front of an unruly, often disruptive crowd that voiced opposition to the city’s plan to shelter at least 250 migrants, including asylum seekers, at the former South Shore High School building on Constance Avenue in the 8th Ward. 

    Harris agreed with the crowd of attendees, saying she was opposed to the housing of migrants at the school on the grounds that the city and country’s “humanitarian crisis” was not the 8th Ward’s crisis.

    The 8th Ward alderman told The Daily Line that she hoped the city learned from the fracas that “they have to engage the community. They have to create a fair and equitable process across the board.” 

    Residents who spoke during a public comment period expressed a feeling of being blindsided by the sudden announcement that the school would become a shelter. They cited worries about crime and decried the city for not doing a better job of taking care of existing unhoused folks in their community. 

    City officials attempted to give a presentation on the plan and field questions from the audience but were often drowned out by the shouts of attendees who opposed the plan. 

    The community members “care about their quality of life and anything — not just something like this — anything that they deem will affect that quality of life, they’re going to be vocal about it, and that’s what you’re seeing today,” Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) told The Daily Line. Mitchell also attended the meeting along with 5th Ward Alderman-elect Desmon Yancy. 

    Officials said they looked at about 200 potential shelter locations and the high school building was the only one that met all requisite standards. 

    Harris criticized the city for coming to her on short notice with the proposal and assured the crowd she didn’t plan this “in cahoots” with the city. 

    “You cannot decide to do this to a community and not have a community process by which the community is engaged, and you talk through these issues,” Harris told The Daily Line. “You can’t just drop all this stuff on a community. We’re not prepared as a community of people to handle all this information at one time … Again, I found out about it a week ago.” 

    While Harris supports additional community input, she also told The Daily Line she has problems with using the school and said it should not be “the top site.” 

    “How do we sustain 250 people in a building 24 hours a day?” Harris told The Daily Line. “It’s not how the community was set up … This is not on a main street where people can exit out, go directly, get on a bus and go somewhere. They’ve got to walk and mingle through the community.” 

    The plans for additional shelter space were announced following news that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott planned to resume busing migrants to Chicago this week. In response, Lightfoot sent the Texas governor an open letter asking him to stop “this inhumane and dangerous action.” 

    “Chicago is a Welcoming City and we collaborate with County, State, and community partners to rise to this challenge, but your lack of consideration or coordination in an attempt to cause chaos and score political points has resulted in a critical tipping point in our ability to receive individuals and families in a safe, orderly, and dignified way,” Lightfoot wrote. “We simply have no more shelters, spaces, or resources to accommodate an increase of individuals at this level, with little coordination or care, that does not pose a risk to them or others.” 

    Last Friday, aldermen learned during a City Council joint committee meeting that the city has seen a surge in migrant arrivals. Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) said her department has gone from experiencing “10 walk-ins a day like we did in January and February, to now we are seeing nearly 75 to 125 people a day seeking shelter.” 

    Related: Mid-year budget amendment would close $53M shortfall in funding to support asylum seekers as Chicago asks state, federal government for more resources 

    City officials have estimated it will cost the city $124 million to care for arriving migrants through the end of June. Though the city has asked for financial assistance from the state and federal government since the crisis began to handle the waves of migrants, the city "has not received the level of funding that is needed to address this emergency,” Budget Director Susie Park said. 

    In March, the council approved an ordinance appropriating $20 million in state grant funds for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) to help recently arrived asylum seekers with housing, food and other services. But the state grant funding was still less than half of the $53.5 million the city initially requested. 

    As a result, aldermen are expected to be asked this month to approve a mid-year budget amendment in the amount of $53 million to plug the gap in funding. 

    Park said last week the $53 million would come from year-end surplus dollars from 2021 that have been held for “unanticipated emergencies.” 

    Chicago has received and cared for more than 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers that have arrived since the end of August from states such as Texas and Colorado, Lightfoot said in her letter. 

    Since March, the Illinois Department of Human Services has awarded Chicago another $10 million to support asylum seekers. 

    In December, the city announced plans to use the former Wadsworth Elementary School building in Woodlawn into a migrant shelter for up to two years, but the decision was heavily criticized by the community and area’s alderman for its abruptness and the city’s lack of transparency, Block Club Chicago has reported. 

    Chicago police stations have also been used to shelter migrants, but concerns have been raised about unsanitary conditions and a lack of coordination to maintain and provide a consistent amount of supplies and food to the migrants, as reported by the Sun-Times. 

    The problem is expected to get worse following the expiration of Title 42 on May 11, a pandemic-era rule that had allowed border authorities to swiftly deport border-crossers including legal asylum seekers.

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