Aldermen sign letter urging Johnson to scrap 60-day migrant shelter policy

More than a dozen Chicago aldermen on Thursday called on Mayor Brandon Johnson to scrap his 60-day shelter limit policy for migrants, the latest sign the City Council’s recent streak of independence has swelled with the city’s controversial responses to the humanitarian crisis.

Johnson allies such as Aldermen Daniel La Spata and Byron Sigcho-Lopez are among the 16 aldermen who joined migrant response mutual aid groups in signing the letter to the mayor, along with more moderate council members such as Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th.

Their protest comes on the heels of a bloc of 27 aldermen signing on to co-sponsor legislation from Ald. Bill Conway, 34th, to add more City Council oversight to how federal stimulus dollars are used in the wake of the Johnson administration allocating $95 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to cover the costs of the migrant mission.

Though sponsors of either item differ on how much to blame Johnson’s administration for the current predicament — where there are no shelter beds left in Chicago, but migrants continue coming — their dissent signals a City Council attempting to flex more influence on how resources are spent and decisions are made.

The aldermen and volunteer groups writing to Johnson Thursday demanded the city rescind his 60-day limit for how long migrants can stay at city-run shelters ahead of the next deadline on Feb. 1, citing “grave concerns” with the asylum-seekers’ well-being during the harsh winter.

“The 60-day eviction policy poses a significant threat to the health and safety of new arrivals,” the letter reads. “To put it simply: the city should not be in the business of handing out eviction notices. While the 60-day limit has been temporarily extended to avoid the worst of the weather, these extensions do not address the systemic issues that prevent new arrivals from being able to leave shelters and find alternative housing.”

The letter also demands food, medical care and other conditions be improved in the shelters, that more housing stock be built for all Chicagoans and for Johnson to appoint someone to the chief homelessness officer position he created in October but has not filled.

In a statement late Thursday, the mayor’s office said the city is improving both the medical screening process and the distribution of food for asylum-seekers at city shelters. A mayoral spokesman also said in the statement that access to resettlement was expanded earlier this month.

“We should continue to see accelerated exits over the next few weeks as new arrivals receive assistance from Catholic Charities on housing location and secure their new homes with rental assistance,” the mayor’s office said. “We continue to evaluate the 60-day policy and will provide updates as the situation develops. Our plan remains providing dignified care and basic support services for asylum seekers to aid them on the aforementioned path to self-sufficiency and independence, while also being fiscally responsible and fulfilling fiduciary responsibilities to the people of the city of Chicago.”

During previous outbreaks of opposition from the City Council or other governments or political leaders, the mayor has said that he is not a “dictator” and hopes to lead with collaboration. In a post-council news conference Wednesday, Johnson did not directly respond to questions about the fate of the 60-day shelter policy come Feb. 1 but said “we’re going to continue to review. This is an evolving crisis.”

The mayor announced a 60-day shelter limit policy in November, but he delayed enforcing it ahead of the first eviction date on Jan. 22 as heavy snowfall and low wind chills pummeled the city. A second extension was announced until Feb. 1, but temperatures are again expected to dip below freezing. Johnson has recently attributed the bumpy implementation of his evictions policy to the Gov. J.B. Pritzker administration not building enough state shelters.

Previously, aldermen have expressed frustrations with city contracts for vendors such as the costly Favorite Healthcare Staffing and GardaWorld Federal Services, which has done migrant detention work. Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, Johnson’s hand-picked Immigration Committee chair who helped organize the letter with mutual aid volunteer groups, said the latest pushback is a sign of a “healthy democracy.”

“This is an understanding of what’s been happening as far as there being a more independent council, and so it’s not about necessarily this administration,” Vasquez said. “What this says is, we believe this is a matter of important discussion that needs to be had with the council.”

Ald. Felix Cardona, 31st, had harsher words. He signed on to both the letter and Conway’s legislation.

“There has to be oversight on that because at one point in the budget we had no money. Now we found $95 million. So something is definitely wrong there,” Cardona said. “You’re gonna see our colleagues, more and more, be very discontent with the administration. And they’re going to be very vocal.”

Conway’s ordinance was introduced at the City Council Wednesday and promptly pushed by Johnson’s vice mayor, Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, to the Rules Committee, putting the legislation’s future in question.

Asked later about Conway’s effort, Johnson said he values transparency, but doesn’t think the additional oversight is needed. Aldermen allocated the federal money to the city’s 2023 budget and gave the mayor and the city’s budget director spending authority, he said.

“There is oversight,” Johnson said. “In fact, I took it one step further. I actually went to the City Council and explained to them and told them what our intentions were, even though the process didn’t require that.”

But Conway said the maneuvers to sideline the ordinance seem “like a willful evasion of some oversight.” The downtown alderman’s ordinance would force the mayor to get City Council approval every time he plans to spend over $1 million in stimulus funds.

“If a big chunk of money comes, it needs to be budgeted out,” Conway said. “I don’t think the mayor’s office should just have a $400 million piggy bank they can spend on whatever they want.”

One Johnson ally, Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, said she joined Conway because she has always supported granting City Council more power on budgeting. She voted against former Mayor Lori Lightfoot having the same spending powers on federal stimulus dollars.

“It’s about us being held accountable to the money we spend and the way we spend it, period,” Taylor said.

“How many more damn migrants do we need? How many more shelters and spaces do we have?” she asked.

Meanwhile, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday she was “not privy” to any of the back-and-forth between Johnson and Pritzker this week, and has “no idea about the interests or intentions or willingness of mayors in suburban Cook County to help meet this challenge.”

The county has previously acknowledged it was “very closely coordinating with the city to at least identify locations for housing” in the city and in suburban Cook. But when she previously asked suburban mayors to step up, Preckwinkle said Thursday “those conversations didn’t result in offers of assistance.”

The county’s emergency funding includes $20 million that municipal or local governments can tap for migrant mission response. Ted Berger, executive director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security, acknowledged his team has assessed suburban locations and whether they met American Red Cross standards for shelter viability

Asked if any suburban sites were viable, he said he “Can’t answer that question at this time,” and referred further questions back to the city.