Mayor Brandon Johnson postpones shelter eviction dates until March

Mayor Brandon Johnson preempted an outcry from migrants and their supporters Monday, announcing he would not enforce a looming Thursday deadline to start kicking recent arrivals out of city-run shelters.

On the eve of a Chicago City Council hearing called to probe conditions at the city’s migrant landing zone and shelters and days before thousands were scheduled to be evicted from the shelters, Johnson said that move would be put off again.

“We have made the decision to extend the shelter stay policy based on original exit dates from mid-January through the end of March,” Johnson said at a City Hall news conference.

The mayor has held off enacting his controversial deadlines for weeks as Chicago has suffered through a long stretch of wet, cold weather.

Migrants who originally had an exit date between Jan. 16 and Feb. 29 will be given a 60-day extension starting from their original exit date, according to Brandie Knazze, head of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services. If an individual was scheduled to leave Jan. 16, for example, their new exit date is March 16. There are 5,673 people who fall into that category.

The 2,119 individuals who were scheduled to exit between Mar. 1 and Mar. 28 will receive a 30-day extension. Anyone who enters the shelter system starting today will receive the standard 60-day notice.

The 5,910 new arrivals who entered the shelter system between Aug. 1 and Nov. 16, 2023, will also receive their 60-day notice starting Feb. 1. Those individuals are eligible for the state’s three-month rental assistance program.

Johnson suggested Chicago was especially generous among the sanctuary cities taking on migrants.

“In Massachusetts, for example, the state government established a statewide limit of 7,500 beds for 100 cities,” he said. “Denver has instituted a 14-day limit for single individuals and 42 (days) for families, making adjustments for weather, just as we have. On Feb. (5), Denver will be discharging families again after its pause. New York instituted a 60-day limit for families and a 30-day limit for single individuals on October 16 and began discharging migrants from shelters on Jan. 9.”

But when asked how the city will find space for newly arriving migrants while letting current shelter residents remain, Johnson said he is working with faith groups, donors and other levels of government. However, the mayor provided no details describing when and where new shelter capacity will be added, again putting the onus on state partners.

Illinois remains committed to building new shelters, Johnson said. He called on the state to build at any sites it is considering. The process of prepping buildings for shelters is slow, he added.

“Remember: the state of Illinois committed to 2,200 beds, right? So, so far they have 200. They’re still committed to 2,000 beds. But again, the goal is of course, is to resettle families as fast as we can to make sure that we are able to handle the flow in the event that it picks up again,” he said. “The state of Illinois can move today to build a shelter, and I’m confident that that will take place.”

The resettlement effort costs the city $1.5 million each day and has been “a weight on our city,” Johnson said. The expensive mission is not sustainable for Chicago to handle without federal support, he added.

“The federal government has to do more. We know that. President (Joe) Biden has put forth a package. Congress needs to act,” Johnson said.

Late last week, more than a dozen aldermen — including mayoral allies — called on Johnson to rescind his 60-day shelter limit policy for migrants, arguing it posed “a significant threat to the health and safety of new arrivals” and that the city “should not be in the business of handing out eviction notices.”

In response to the letter, the administration said last week they would “continue to evaluate the 60-day policy and will provide updates as the situation develops.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, chair of the Immigration Committee and one of the co-signers who called for scrapping the shelter plan, applauded the move after Johnson’s announcement.

”We’re leading from the front as a city,” he told the Tribune, adding that today’s announcement shows “the rest of the country what it is to be a city that lives the values this country claims. … I really appreciate the fact there was collaboration, partnership and listening in a way I hadn’t seen” under prior Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Even so, Vasquez said he and other members of council have concerns over food, language access and the conditions at shelters. He hopes Tuesday’s hearing gives a clear picture of how and whether the city has addressed complaints: “how many grievances have been filed, what kind, and how they’ve been addressed.”

The postponement also came on the heels of several aldermen urging oversight of the mayor’s planned use of federal American Rescue Plan Act spending to respond to the crisis.

Johnson administration officials from DFSS and the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications are expected to provide testimony about shelter and landing zone conditions to the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights on Tuesday.

Health care specialists have questioned both the conditions and coordination of care across the city’s shelter system, citing overcrowding and cleanliness. The Tribune has also reported on a lack of food at the city’s landing zone and whether the city’s use of warming buses were considered humane shelter.

More than 35,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago to date, and about 14,300 are staying in city shelters — including about 4,900 children. As of Friday, about 200 others were in staging areas at O’Hare airport or the city’s landing zones, according to a briefing document the mayor’s office distributed to aldermen.

The number of new arrivals dropped drastically in recent weeks, from more than 1,000 the week of Jan. 14 to roughly 200 last week, the briefing document said.

Nonetheless, the Johnson administration continues to struggle to meet the demand for warm beds from the asylum-seekers. The crisis has dominated the public discourse since he took office in May, and threatened to overshadow his broader progressive agenda.

The shelter policy was already pushed back during a cold spell earlier this month. Overnight temperatures are expected to dip below freezing for the latter half of this week.

Further complicating matters for the mayor, he has been publicly at odds with Gov. J.B. Pritzker about how to handle and pay for the situation. Johnson last week suggested the state should be setting up more shelter space, including in the suburbs.

Pritzker again emphasized Monday that the city must continue to handle the brunt of responsibility for sheltering and caring for migrants because most of the services they need are in the city, which “has a shelter system like none other.”

“(Migrants) expect to be arriving not in Elmhurst, not in the suburbs, but in the city of Chicago,” Pritzker told reporters at an unrelated event. “We’re providing resources to other jurisdictions … but the majority part of what’s necessary needs to be in the city.”

But the governor downplayed any tensions between the city and state over the migrant crisis, saying senior staffers from his office and from Johnson’s administration, as well as from Cook County, are working together and meet “every day.” “We’re getting a lot done,” Pritzker said.

“There are disagreements, and sometimes those leak into the public. But the reality is, we all understand our responsibilities here, and it is to have a humanitarian response to a humanitarian crisis.”