Shelter evictions will begin Sunday, Johnson administration says

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration announced Friday that 34 migrants will be evicted from Chicago’s migrant shelter system this weekend while scores of families will receive new exemptions allowing them to stay, the latest update in his handling of a 60-day shelter limit policy that has seen months of delays and backlash.

The group of 34 adults will be the first migrants required to leave the shelters, after a week of uncertainty over whether the Johnson administration would move ahead with limited evictions at the next deadline Saturday as outcry mounted from aldermen opposed to the policy.

Thousands of new exemptions were granted to all families with children, on top of existing ones for those who have medical issues including a mental health condition or quarantine requirement, are in the process of securing housing or leaving Chicago, experiencing domestic violence or are pregnant. Further exceptions include those enrolled in public benefits or undergoing bereavement.

During a Friday briefing with City Hall reporters, Johnson’s team confirmed the change. It came two days after the mayor said the city was proceeding with the policy that was to see its first wave of evictions on Saturday, without elaborating on how many would be affected.

Johnson’s deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas nodded to the whiplash that came with the evolving guidelines surrounding the 60-day policy, noting that even after Friday, “There may be more. I think you can go ahead and talk to (Texas) Gov. Abbott to see what his plan is, because it’s unknown from our perspective.”

She also sought to frame the new extensions concerning migrant children — up to three 30-day extensions, through June — as a solace for families who once slept on the floors of police stations and airports.

“I’m recounting all of this to basically illustrate how unpredictable the conditions are and therefore the necessity to respond to that and be flexible in the moment,” Pacione-Zayas said.

After Sunday, a larger wave of about 2,000 migrants, the vast majority being men, will be required to exit in waves between next week and the end of April, the administration said. Their evictions will be staggered, with 244 set to be removed by the end of March and 1,782 more scheduled to be forced to leave shelters between April 1 and April 30, the administration said.

But given how Johnson has so far failed to meet the shelter deadlines he has set, it remains to be seen how the situation will play out.

Friday’s late change comes as residents of a Lower West Side shelter currently grapple with a measles outbreak. They will receive a quarantine-related extension to the evictions policy. As of Thursday, 12 cases of the highly infectious disease have been reported in Chicago — the first in five years — and 10 of them are from the migrant facility that is in the midst of a lockdown.

Johnson’s administration announced Friday that all migrant shelter residents will need the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to stay. They said so far no one has refused.

While Johnson’s team previously estimated as many as 5,600 migrants could be removed under the shelter limit policy, he had hinted Wednesday that many would be spared thanks to exemptions granted by the city. That number was revealed to be more than 3,800 on Friday. In total, 4,500 migrant shelter residents who were set to be evicted from now until May will get relief.

Those required to leave next will be directed back to the city’s landing zone if they wish to restart the process of waiting for a shelter bed. Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze did not address what would happen if none are available beyond saying there will be an “iterative process” at the landing zone.

Asked what will happen if a migrant refuses to leave a shelter, Knazze said the city and the Favorite Staffing employees hired by the city to staff the shelters will use “education” and “grace” rather than force. The city will be flexible with the 2 p.m. exit times and allow residents to leave their belongings for 48 hours if need be.

“Our goal is not to use CPD, right,” Knazze said. “The goal is not necessarily to use law enforcement as a first line of defense, but really supporting the case managers to be able to talk to individuals and reason with them and support them in going back to the landing zone and applying for shelter.”

The mayor in November initially unveiled the new requirement that migrants leave the shelters after 60 days as a way to push them to find permanent housing and relieve pressure on the expensive, overburdened shelter system. Since then, Johnson has delayed enacting the policy three times.

The previous pushbacks, each announced in January, came amid cold weather and aldermanic complaints just days before migrants faced removal. This Saturday was the next deadline, though it too was surrounded by mixed messaging from the Johnson administration.

While suggesting Wednesday that the deadline would stand, Johnson pinned the “unsustainability” of the city’s asylum-seeker support on the absence of federal support while calling on Congress to punish Abbott for his hand in sending migrant buses north to Chicago starting in August 2022.

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

At the same time, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, had said the Johnson administration signaled to him they were still deliberating the policy’s implementation. That was despite mayoral spokesperson Ronnie Reese saying earlier this month, “The decision was made.”

Reached for comment Friday, Vasquez said he still wants the policy to be eliminated entirely and “there’s a dissonance that borders on hypocrisy” when migrants will begin facing evictions the same week Chicago voters are set to vote on Bring Chicago Home, a tax referendum meant to fund homelessness services.

“The 60-day policy largely feels like messaging looking to placate either a political base or some xenophobic narrative,” Vasquez, Johnson’s hand-picked chair of the Immigration Committee, said.

The mayor faced a similar storm most recently when news of his decision to end the city’s use of the ShotSpotter gunfire detection technology broke before the deal was inked. As uncertainty mounted over whether the company would play ball with a final extension through the often violent summer months, Johnson evaded questions asked by reporters days before the contract’s end. Ultimately, an agreement was announced the day before it was set to lapse.

Earlier this winter, the 60-day migrant shelter policy was delayed because of extreme weather conditions. As new deadlines came and went, advocates and progressive aldermen sounded the alarm on the shortage of work permits and rental assistance and feared that evictions would send many of the asylum-seekers to the streets.

But while Johnson maintains he will prove Chicago’s values as a welcoming city for immigrants, he has also been under sharp pressure from moderates and Black aldermen to rein in runaway costs that could be spent on longtime Chicagoans too. Pacione-Zayas hinted Friday that earlier projections of a spring date for when the city’s coffers for migrant spending will run out have improved, including forthcoming changes to transition the city shelter workforce’s reliance on Favorite Staffing, an out-of-state vendor.

The pace of new arrivals has also slowed in recent months — a reprieve that many receive with wariness, given the threat of Abbott escalating the buses before the Democratic National Convention arrives in Chicago this summer. The population in the city shelters has declined from a late-December high of 14,900 to 11,200 Friday.

“This has never been done before. You’re literally building the plane while flying,” Pacione-Zayas said. “There’s no blueprint in any other city that we can look to. We did talk to our colleagues, and they didn’t have the playbook.”

The 34 Sunday evictees are spread across the Woodlawn shelter at the former Wadsworth Elementary School, the Gage Park fieldhouse on the Southwest Side and a building on North Elston Avenue in West Town.

The alderman whose 15th Ward includes the Gage Park facility, Raymond Lopez, said he was unhappy Friday for a different reason.

“I don’t want 10 people evicted. I want them all gone now,” Lopez, an enduring mayoral critic, said. “You can only draw a line in the sand so many times before people call your bluff. And the migrants have been calling our bluff every single step of the way.”

Meanwhile outside that Gage Park shelter, a group of migrants said Friday afternoon they hadn’t heard about any change in policy.

Wilian Salazar, 24, from the northwestern state of Carabobo, Venezuela, said his latest date was April 20, and he didn’t know what he would do when it arrived.

Chicago’s beautiful, Salazar said, but without making money, he wasn’t sure how he was going to stay.

“I want to have work by then,” he said. “It’s been really hard to find a job with the cold weather.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com

nsalzman@chicagotribune.com