Mayor Johnson says limited migrant shelter evictions to start

Mayor Johnson says limited migrant shelter evictions to start

Mayor Brandon Johnson said Wednesday the city will move ahead with evicting an unknown number of migrants from city shelters for the first time, rejecting the latest outcry from a group of aldermen opposed to the policy.

Johnson told reporters at an unrelated West Side event that some of the thousands of migrant shelter residents who were issued 60-day notices to vacate by Saturday will receive “exemptions.” However, others without those privileges will be forced to leave and restart the process for seeking temporary shelter.

“I don’t know if it’s a substantial number, but again, they can return to the loading zone,” the mayor said when asked about how many migrants must leave the shelters. “That’s one place, or they can decide to move on. You know, they don’t necessarily have to remain within the structure that we’re providing.”

It was unclear how many migrants previously required to exit a shelter will qualify for city-issued exemptions allowing them to instead stay. Johnson’s administration previously estimated as many as 5,600 could be removed, but exceptions will be made for those in the process of securing housing or out-migrating, as well as people with extenuating health circumstances, including pregnancy, he added.

Earlier this winter, the policy was delayed because of extreme weather conditions. And over the past week, an ongoing measles outbreak at a migrant shelter has placed that Lower West Side facility on a 21-day lockdown and prompted a massive vaccination response. The Chicago Department of Public Health reported an eighth case there on Wednesday, while citywide there have been 10 total cases.

“The ultimate goal is to move people to resettlement or out-migration,” the mayor said. “What this policy has essentially done, it has given us the opportunity to have real substantive conversations with migrants to help them move on.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s immigration committee chair was spearheading a letter with colleagues urging the city to scrap the 60-day shelter limit policy entirely.

The mayor first announced new requirements in November to remove migrants from shelters after they have stayed 60 days as a way to push them to find permanent housing and relieve pressure on the expensive, overburdened shelter system. A day later, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state’s rental assistance program for asylum-seekers would be curtailed from six months of support to three, citing the need to widen total recipients covered. New arrivals to the shelter system after that date also have been ineligible.

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, began circulating a letter this week among aldermen calling on the mayor to scrap the “60 Day Eviction Policy” in favor of one that addresses shelter stays on a case-by-case basis. The majority of shelter residents are not allowed to work because of their asylum-seeker immigration status or cannot access rental assistance, he wrote in the letter. The letter also urges the state to restore the six-month coverage of its rental assistance program.

“What we have also now seen after this weekend is that there are public health concerns that could be exacerbated if people who have no rental assistance, no work authorization and significant language barriers are put out on the street,” Vasquez wrote.

Earlier on Wednesday, Pritzker told reporters that more funding will come for the state’s asylum-seeker rental assistance program, without directly addressing the specific request in Vasquez’s letter.

“That’s one of the big parts of what the state provides,” Pritzker said about migrant rental assistance. “So yeah, a portion of the $250 million that we’ve talked about will of course go to that. It’s a comprehensive program. We’re trying to cover the needs. These are just basic needs.”

The governor was talking about the combined $250 million pledge from the state and Cook County to support Chicago’s migrant response. But the state’s $182 million share of that is baked into his next budget plan that would not take effect until July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

As of last week, the state had only about $11.2 million left out of an overall $56.2 million allocated toward migrant rental aid, according to Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough. He added the program “is federally funded through (the American Rescue Plan Act), and we won’t be able to continue without federal support, but, regardless, state-funded shelter and legal assistance will continue.”

More than 5,200 migrant families have received the rental aid, with another 1,300 eligible households in the process of completing their applications, according to the state.

Johnson has delayed enacting the policy three times since it was first announced. The previous pushbacks, each announced in January, came amid cold weather and aldermanic complaints just days before migrants faced removal.

The number of migrants in city shelters has sharply declined since a late-December high from 14,895 to 11,362 Tuesday as many migrants leave the city or move into other housing, often with rent support.

Despite Johnson signaling last week the administration had not yet made a decision on whether to again delay, mayoral spokesperson Ronnie Reese told the Tribune “nothing has changed” since Johnson set the new removal date for Saturday on Jan. 29.

“The decision was made,” Reese said.

But the sudden spread of measles at a crowded Lower West Side migrant shelter has intensified concerns over the looming deadline. More infections have been announced almost each day since the first case became public Friday, with seven cases now confirmed.

The spread has prompted Latino aldermen to go inside the now-quarantined facility in an urgent bid to convince residents to get vaccinated against the virus. The illness’s presence has also renewed calls from council and community members for Johnson to delay the 60-day limit’s enforcement once more.

Activists and volunteers held a rally Saturday urging another pushback, calling the removals “traumatic” and “damaging.”

Johnson deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said after the last delay that giving migrants 60-day notices to leave shelter spaces should not be labeled an “eviction.”

“It’s a misnomer,” she said. “What’s implicit in that is that people have not been provided resources, have not been connected to a case manager and are just being pushed out.”

Asked about his reaction to the ongoing pressures from City Council to roll back migrant shelter evictions entirely, Johnson said he was “very sympathetic” to those concerns but they had to understand: “This is a really jacked-up situation.”

“My response to my colleagues is: This is an emergency temporary shelter. I don’t know how long this crisis is going to last,” Johnson said. “So we need the federal government and my colleagues to send in a letter with me to get the federal government to pass a law to check (Texas) Gov. Abbott. Because that is the real crisis: An out of control tyrant, a petulant one at that.”

Chicago Tribune’s Olivia Olander contributed.