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Chicago Police Stations Provide Shelter for Migrants, Homeless

Police stations have long served as entry points for Chicagoans in need of social services. As the city tries to maneuver the influx of thousands of migrants, some homeless residents are also using the city’s police stations as shelters.

a woman stands in the entryway of Chicago's District 3 police station while holding her 2 year old son
Jessica Wilson is fed a cookie by her son, Jacobie, 2, in the entryway to Chicago's District 3 police station on Cottage Grove Avenue on Oct. 13, 2023. Wilson and her son had been living out of the station with migrants, mostly from Venezuela.
(John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
The floor of the police station in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood was turning into a patchwork of mattresses and quilts on a recent evening as the migrants who were staying there got ready for another night in the half-lit lobby.

As one man blew up an air mattress, 2-year-old Jacobie Wilson wriggled out of his stroller and ran toward it with a flying leap. The man smiled at the toddler and offered his hands as he jumped, but Jacobie’s mother, Jessica Wilson, 28, hurried to scoop him up. She nodded at the man an apology and thanks. Though everyone who stayed at District 3 knew of them both, the Joliet native doesn’t speak Spanish and keeps to herself.

While many of the migrants at the station come from Venezuela, the Wilsons had only come from a few miles away. The language barrier was just one more thing that separated her and her son from the migrants they slept alongside at the police station.

It is unclear how many homeless U.S. citizens like the Wilsons are staying among the nearly 2,800 migrants awaiting shelter placement in Chicago police stations. A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication said it only tracks the number of asylum-seekers, and officials with the Department of Family and Support Services did not respond to a request for comment. The Chicago Police Department said they do not track how many U.S. citizens are sheltering with them.

Advocates and U.S. citizens who have sought shelter at police stations say they have done so as a last resort, a stopgap solution or option for something that Chicago’s extant shelter system does not have.

“It’s like, I’m not trying to live here,” said Wilson, who had been staying at the station for two months. “I’m trying to wait for somebody to contact me.”

Police stations, like hospital emergency rooms, have long been entry points for Chicagoans in need of social services. According to a report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an estimated 65,611 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2020, an estimate different from that offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because it takes into account people living doubled up or temporarily staying with others.

With the arrival of another 20,000 migrants this year who need homes, the city’s existing shelter network — which never fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic when the number of beds decreased — maxed out. So city officials turned to police stations to be used as makeshift processing centers for migrants as Chicago scrambled to open shelters.

But even as the city has repurposed old school buildings, warehouses and other vacant structures into places for migrants to sleep — often amid a serious backlash from neighbors — it’s not enough because the existing system wasn’t adequately equipped to begin with, said Douglas Schenkelberg, the executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“The city is drinking from a fire hose in this moment,” he said.

Conversations about social services for homeless Chicagoans have collided with citizens’ concerns over the arrival of thousands of migrants being flown and bused from the U.S.-Mexico border into the city since late August 2022. Tensions were evident at a standing room-only community meeting in June when city officials presented a proposal to turn the Diplomat Motel in Lincoln Square into transitional housing with on-site services for homeless residents — not migrants — of the ward. The City Council backed the plan in July.

But Schenkelberg said that ideally the city would have what he described as a “no-wrong-door approach,” or unified shelter system “that serves everyone regardless of the reason they’re currently experiencing homelessness.”

“You can enter through the same portal, be assessed about what your needs are, provided short-term shelter at the front end and then long-term permanent housing at the back end,” he said. “So your experience of homelessness is very brief.”

He said he and other advocates are not frustrated with the fact that migrants are arriving in Chicago.

“They need and deserve support,” he said, referring to asylum-seekers. “What this moment shows us is that we haven’t invested in a long-term strategy and infrastructure so that we have the resilience to deal with crises.”

In late October, Nathan McCarthy rode on a donated Divvy bike into a parking lot across from the Austin police district, where he lives.

He said he has stayed in the parking lot for about six months and watched the first wave of migrants move into the police station. Then he watched as the tents began to line Madison Street. Then they began to appear in the parking lot where he was sleeping.

“I had to do a double take, like, ‘What the hell is happening?’” he said of his reaction to the satellite tent city.

McCarthy, 49, doesn’t speak Spanish, but he’s been “working it out” to communicate with asylum-seekers. He said he’s heard some intense stories from his new neighbors. He said one man told him he had been to nine different countries before arriving in Chicago.

McCarthy described that encounter as “a moment of bonding” despite the communication barrier.

He is a West Side native and has been homeless since about 2021. McCarthy is currently using heroin — not as intensely as he has at other points in his life, he said, but enough that he doesn’t want to go back to his family in Flossmoor.

He once spent a few years clean in Indianapolis while working as a machinist.

“I had coping skills, but I didn’t apply them,” he said of his relapse.

He would like to find a recovery program with structure — not one where you detox “and then you’re back out the door.”

As Spanish conversations floated across the parking lot to the curb where he stood, McCarthy said some of the children who are staying in the lot like him, and when he comes across toys or other useful items he brings them back to where they all stay.

“You know, they didn’t ask to be here,” he said. “We don’t have anything.”

Behind him, migrants lined up for food outside a larger tent at the southeast corner of the lot under a streetlamp. McCarthy said he sometimes takes meals with them.

He’s wary of things happening to his stuff, and a little suspicious of his neighbors. He thinks his neighbors speak more English than they let on. But he said he still shares with them when he can because it’s the right thing to do.

Annie Gomberg, 43, has volunteered at the Austin District station since April and said she’s seen both tension and generosity between the U.S. citizens and migrants staying at the station.

The volunteers at the station bring supplies to the people experiencing homelessness as well as migrants, she said. And migrants have been willing to share the resources they’ve been offered, she said.

“For most of my time at the police district, the migrants have been fixing plates and saying, ‘Please take some of this food or some of this water,’” she said.

Gomberg said the conflicts she has seen often occur when people act aggressively or erratically under the influence of drugs or alcohol, with the language barrier aggravating disagreements or misunderstandings.

She estimated that there are between two and four U.S. citizens at the Austin station on a “permanent-ish” basis.

Some, like McCarthy, report having family in the area and appear to be in a situation she described as “housing instability rather than a complete lack of access.”

“I think it’s more of an instability … they’re going between different locations, including the police district, and this reflects housing instability and insufficient resources for Chicago’s unhoused (people) because they can’t get into a shelter tonight.”

Erin Ryan of homeless outreach organization The Night Ministry said a homeless person might opt to stay in a police station instead of a formal shelter for a number of reasons, including the availability of beds and a facility’s location.

“People do take the services that meet their needs,” she said.

People may also not want or be able to abide by rules and expectations at a shelter, she said. Or they might have safety concerns about the housing options that are available.

“It’s a personal choice about what makes (someone) feel safe and secure and connected,” she said.

Wilson became homeless after she got into an argument with a roommate at the shelter she and her son were living in. They left and found their way to the Woodlawn station. She said most of the people staying at the district when they first arrived had been families.

“Then it was a time when it was only dudes, and barely any women,” she said.

Jacobie isn’t talking much yet, but Wilson said she would sometimes hear him communicating with migrant children when her back was turned. She used her limited Spanish and translator apps to speak with the migrants.

They talked to volunteers together, ate together, scrambled for donated items together.

She said most of the officers didn’t seem to mind that she and her son were at the station, but that one officer told her almost every day that she needed to find somewhere to go.

She estimated she had called the city between five and 10 times about a shelter placement. During that period, she said she watched migrants return to the station from other accommodations.

“Even the Venezuela shelter is not too good as well,” she said, referring to one of the facilities the city has hurried to open to relieve crowding at police stations and in airports. “Some of these people come back and they say they don’t like the shelter.”

But she was still eager to go.

On a recent night at the station, she stood with Jacobie’s stroller under a plastic rain cover and considered her next moves. Behind her, people fished items out of tents while children careened past on tricycles.

A ponytailed woman in combat boots, glasses and a windbreaker walked between knots of people, inquiring in Spanish about families.

Wilson wanted to be left to herself. She needed to claim a spot on the floor of the lobby, where she and Jacobie have often stuck near the other two Chicagoans staying at the station.

She needed to eat the sandwich she’d bought for dinner and get her things from the tent. She retreated into the station.

A few minutes later, she hurried back out, cigar in one hand and pushing Jacobie’s stroller with the other.

“I’m leaving, I’m gone!” she said. “I’m excited!”

The woman she had seen earlier walking around and talking to families had told her she could go to a regular homeless shelter, she said.

She headed back into the station for what turned out to be her last night in the police lobby. She and Jacobie were transferred the next day.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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