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As migrants move into shelters, Chicago communities respond

On a recent sunny afternoon in Woodlawn, more than a dozen men from Venezuela gathered in a parking lot outside a shuttered elementary school that is now a shelter for migrants, kicking a soccer ball and blaring music from cars.

Jeisson Gutierrez Rojas, 27, sat on a bench and scrolled through his phone. Wearing a bucket hat and black blazer, he said he fled his home country after being imprisoned by Venezuelan political forces.

“All things considered, we’re really doing OK,” he told the Tribune in Spanish. “We have a roof over our heads and a bed. A place to shower.”

When the city decided to open the shelter at the former Wadsworth Elementary School in February, there was serious pushback from the community. At the time, Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, said opposition from the neighborhood should not be seen as anti-immigrant sentiment but rather as residents feeling disrespected by the city’s plan to repurpose a school that they had fought to keep open in a community that’s been through “decades of racist disinvestment.”

And residents in South Shore voiced similar objections at a fiery meeting to discuss another proposed site over two weeks ago, with some South Shore residents filing a lawsuit against the city to stop the use of a shuttered high school there as a temporary respite center.

But more than three months since the Woodlawn shelter opened its doors to migrants, residents are adjusting to the newcomers. An uneasy truce has settled over the neighborhood as migrants adapt to their new surroundings and begin the work of creating a life for themselves in the U.S.

On Friday, migrants gathered in the parking lot across the street from the shelter, wearing donated purple and red sweatshirts and hats. They clustered around Sam Sparks, owner of A Roof & Four Walls, a contracting company partnering with New Life Covenant to provide job training services to migrants.

Sparks told the Tribune he is providing training for as many as 50 men at the shelter.

“What we want to do is create a job for them between the next six months to a year,” Sparks said. “I want to train them not only to be able to do work for me, but after they leave so they don’t have to worry about a trade anymore.”

Cesar Espinoza, second from left, a former firefighter from Venezuela, shakes hands with Chicago businessman Sam Sparks, center, near the former Wadsworth Elementary School building in Chicago on May 19, 2023.

The Woodlawn shelter was intended to accommodate 250 people when it opened, but Rojas and other migrants told the Tribune there are at least double that inside. Rojas said there are not enough bathrooms and people often have to wait in long lines.

“We’re sleeping on cots. Lined up almost like dead bodies,” said another migrant, Eduardo David Martinez, 29, with a laugh. Wearing a Bulls hat, he said he hopes to stay in Chicago and that he’ll do anything for work: painting, cleaning, construction.

Indeed, city officials confirmed that as of Wednesday, 581 migrants are staying at Wadsworth, which has a capacity for 600 individuals, according to a statement provided by Mary May, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“The city of Chicago is in the midst of a national humanitarian crisis that requires collective responsibility and swift humane action to provide safe spaces for the current increase of newly arrived refugees and immigrants seeking asylum,” the statement said. “Our dual priorities include coordinated efforts to prioritize sheltering unhoused Chicagoans while also opening suitable respite and shelter space for new arrivals. As a result of the of rapidly changing circumstances, our current City shelters are reaching capacity.”

Over all, 4,760 new arrivals are in seven temporary shelters and three respite centers across the city, as of Friday, according to the statement.

This is the new normal for cities around the country dealing with record levels of border crossings as city officials have turned to homeless shelters, hotels, churches and even a cruise ship terminal to accommodate the migrants. In Chicago, hundreds of migrants are sheltering at police stations after the city ran out of space at other makeshift shelters.

With more than 8,000 migrants arriving in the city since August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a state of emergency before she left office earlier this month, which will enable new Mayor Brandon Johnson — who issued an executive order to create a deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights — to more easily use emergency funds and request the help of the Illinois National Guard.

But as the city scrambles for new shelters, the migrants at Woodlawn settle in. About a half dozen Woodlawn residents who spoke to the Tribune over the course of last week said they hadn’t been bothered by the migrants, but declined to be identified.

“It’s going to be a shock,” said a man who was tending to his plot at 62nd Street Community Garden on Monday a few blocks from the Wadsworth shelter. “It’s going to be an adjustment. But we came here in this life to learn from each other.”

Resident Nijah Stuckey, 21, said she knew people who graduated from Wadsworth, but she didn’t know the school was being used to shelter migrants. She can see the old school from her house, she said.

“Me and my friend walk through that park, and we’ve been wondering what is going on. We thought they might be having parties or renting it out,” she said.

But not everyone is feeling the peace. One woman, whose back door faces the former Wadsworth school parking lot, said she feels disturbed when she walks by the migrants on her way home from work. She declined to give her name to the Tribune.

“You’re putting blight on top of blight. We’ve been fighting for hundreds of years, and they haven’t even been here for six months, and have gotten all these resources,” she said.

On a cool Thursday afternoon last week, men lined up outside the shelter, waiting with cash for a haircut. As Kennis Inpante, 25, pulled an electric shaver from his backpack, he said he was a graphic designer in Venezuela but liked to cut hair as a hobby. He’s given almost 250 haircuts, he said, $15 each.

“It’s really an art,” he told the Tribune in Spanish as he carefully buzzed patterns into 18-year-old Baris Ayyoyo’s scalp. Ayyoyo said he was a senior in high school in Venezuela, but left due to economic instability.

Kennis Inpante, of Venezuela, gives Baris Ayyoyo, of Venezuela, a haircut outside the former Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn on May 18, 2023.

Paula Gean, Woodlawn resident and founder of Chicago 4 All, a grassroots initiative in Woodlawn that aims to shift perspectives about Black and Latino relationships, said she understands concerns from neighbors. She said Woodlawn and South Shore represent communities that have been disinvested in by the city.

“And then all of a sudden, you know, these are the only communities, these are the only places that are big enough to hold shelters, right?” she asked.

Gean came to the United States from Colombia when she was 3 years old. She said Chicago was the first place she arrived. She often walks by the shelter and sees the men outside in the parking lot, as young as 18 or 19.

“They’ve got this whole future ahead of them, and they will give back. They have value. They are doctors. They are lawyers,” she said. “And we know that they have grit and perseverance, right? Because they made this trek to the United States.”

Since January, Gean has been organizing events for the Woodlawn community — partnering with churches, local organizations and community members. She isn’t allowed inside the shelter, so she stands outside the gate and passes out flyers to asylum-seekers and residents.

Paula Gean, right, talks with Benji Hart, left, as migrants and members of the community play soccer near the former Wadsworth Elementary School in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood on May 14, 2023.

C4A held a banquet event in April with the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago where about 150 residents and 50 migrants came. People signed up because they were interested in meeting each other, said Gean. There was live music, food, and translators at each table.

Gean’s community integration efforts led her to the Rev. John Sianghio and Otto Rodriguez, founders of Woodlawn’s Sports on Sundays, or Deportivos en los Domingos program. Sianghio is a pastor at Cosmopolitan United Church in Melrose Park and Rodriguez is executive director of Street Soccer USA Chicago.

They became friends in seventh grade, and were drawn to each other as two of the only migrant kids at their private high school in Elmhurst, they said.

For over a month and a half, they have led soccer games at the park beside the Wadsworth shelter on Sundays for migrants and Woodlawn residents. They bring equipment, including neon jerseys, clothes and snacks. Sianghio said sports on Sundays offer an emotional release.

University of Chicago students and Venezuela migrants play soccer near the former Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn on May 14, 2023.

“It’s a trust-building vehicle that leads to more sustainable housing, jobs. But the first thing we have to do is build trust amongst our communities who can show up and move across borders,” he said.

Sianghio and Rodriguez host games rain or shine. They said aside from some residents initially complaining about the “stadium-like” atmosphere of games on Sundays, their efforts have been met mostly with excitement from the community.

They have even catered their Sunday sports events to meet the needs of the migrants, bringing in Leonard Thomas II, executive director at We Care Recreation Association, to coach baseball, a sport that some Venezuelans prefer to soccer, he said.

Otto Rodriguez, right, executive director of Street Soccer USA Chicago, talks about offering weekend soccer and baseball activities to new migrants outside a Woodlawn respite shelter with the Rev. John Sianghio, second from left, on May 11, 2023.

On a gray Mother’s Day last weekend, over 40 residents, migrants and students from University of Chicago gathered to play.

Graduate student Natalia Alvarez lived in Chile her entire life before moving to Chicago for school. She heard about the Sunday games through her friend who volunteers to provide English classes to migrants at the shelter.

Some migrants at the shelter have sought refuge in Chile after fleeing their home country and before coming to the United States. They have common ground, Alvarez said.

“Although we just play soccer, we’ve been slowly forming a community and that has been really meaningful for me,” Alvarez said.

Natalia Niedmann Alvarez, 31, left, a student at the University of Chicago, hands a bag of women’s shoes to Gabriel, 24, of Venezuela, after playing soccer near the former Wadsworth Elementary School in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood on May 14, 2023.

Gean hopes her scalable model, implemented by local organizations and neighbors, can be a blueprint for other neighborhoods like South Shore, and across the nation.

She has recruited the Rev. Stephany Rose Spaulding, a Black female leader and speaker with a background in critical race theory, to facilitate conversations with Woodlawn residents at the end of this month, to get even more people involved with integration efforts. Spaulding does not, however, speak Spanish.

When there aren’t events planned, migrants mill about the parking lot and on benches in the park. Some have bought bikes or cars. Or they stand along the fence overlooking 64th Street and watch traffic go by.

Helena Olea, associate director for programs at Alianza Americas, said that migrants are only able to request an employment authorization five months after they have filed for asylum. But there are millions of unfilled jobs in the United States, and though many migrants who cross the border face deportation, they could be establishing themselves as working residents in the meantime, she said.

“That would definitely be more dignified for them, more humane and, and it would also be useful for the United States’ economy,” she said.

Rojas has been at the temporary shelter for two months, despite a 30-day maximum stay time instituted by the city. And like most of the migrants in the Wadsworth shelter, he doesn’t have a work permit.

He said he doesn’t have time or energy to look for legal help because he’s mostly looking for work. He was fired from his recent part-time job as a chef because he showed up late due to delays on public transit. The restaurant was far away, he said.

He used to work in tech. His wife and two young boys are still in Venezuela, but he wants to make enough money to bring them here, to buy an apartment, he said.

“Building for their future,” a banner outside the old school flapped in the wind.

Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez Presa contributed.

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