I recently again filled in for afternoon host Joan Esposito on WCPT-AM 820 and again invited on as a guest my good friend and neighbor Douglas Fraser. He’s the executive director of Chicago Help Initiative, a not-for-profit that addresses the needs and concerns of those without housing, and I wanted to continue a conversation we’d had at dinner a few days earlier about how the addition of several thousand asylum-seekers from Central America are adding to the challenges of homelessness in Chicago. Here is an edited transcript of our on-air discussion:
Eric Zorn: When you and I last talked on the air it was mainly about the alarming shortage of shelter beds in Chicago. But let’s start today by discussing the situation of asylum seekers here. Now, technically, many of them have shelter — indoor places to sleep — but as I understand it the situation isn’t good. Can you fill us in on that?
Douglas Fraser: Sure. About a month ago, other downtown meal providers and I began seeing asylum seekers showing up at our meals. We serve an evening supper for the homeless and those in need at 721 N. LaSalle every Wednesday night. There are community meals served at that location five nights a week, and providers include 4th Presbyterian Church, Catholic Charities and Holy Name Cathedral.
We has been serving about 130 people at a sitting. Then we saw a rapid increase to about 270. And it turned out that most of that increase was women and children coming from the Inn of Chicago — a 22-story, 340-room hotel at 163 E. Ohio St. that the city has leased to asylum seekers.
So we started looking at both what’s going on at the Inn of Chicago and what’s going on, generally with asylum seekers in relation to the homeless in Chicago. This affects us directly. Because we feed people and everybody is welcome. That’s what we do. But we have to think about our budget.
The Inn of Chicago now houses over 950 people, and about 400 of those are children. In conversations with the asylum seekers, they’ve told me they are housed two families in a room in many cases. That is an odd statement on the surface – are all 340 rooms being used? What is the standard for how many people to what space? And who is paying attention to that and checking?
Are the claims by the asylum seekers correct? We don’t know – no one else is allowed to enter the building.
On March 28, I posed the question to the mayor’s office. I said, ”OK, now, if we’ve got issues or if things come up with this population, who do we talk to? Who do we call? What’s going on here?”
And they said, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” But they haven’t. So the question remains, is this setting ethical? Is it being monitored appropriately?
The second thing that came up in our conversations and the research we did had to do with data from the city of Chicago that’s released in a weekly bulletin that comes from the mayor’s office. Starting in August of 2022 through the end of this February, the city said it had processed over 5000 people through the combined shelter system, and of that number 2,200 remain in the system today.
By combined, I am referring to both the regular shelter system that a longtime Chicagoan in crises would use, and the new shelters set up for asylum seekers.
This is both those bussed here and those who have come on their own. The buses haven’t been coming. They may return but they haven’t been coming lately.
Originally, the city placed all of the folks who were coming on the buses in distinct shelters from the original shelter system. But that’s over with.
Now the populations are mixed. And so they’re in both the distinct shelter systems and they’re in the regular shelter system that we all rely on as Chicagoans.
Here are the three points I’m driving at:
- The total number of migrants who remain in the system of all possible shelter beds is currently increasing at a rate of about 150 people a month.At the beginning of March there were about 2,200 migrants in the combined system, at the end there were 2,391. That’s a little above 150, but that might just be a spike.
- There are fewer beds available to the neediest Chicagoans. Currently, everyone from asylum seekers to longtime Chicagoans seeking shelter enters the system through 311. In an average month, about 600 people are placed into shelter beds through this system.That doesn’t mean we are adding 600 people a month – because not everyone stays and people rotate out every day. But it means that we can accommodate 600 requests for shelter each month from people in crises.But the city’s numbers show that asylum seekers are now being placed at the rate of 550 a month. That means, for a system already working at capacity, we can only accommodate 50 of the normally 600 Chicagoans asking for help.
- The number of shelter beds available to asylum seekers is not clear. In March, the city closed three shelters, dropping the total from 11 to 8. I presume that means fewer beds? They could be leaving the larger spaces and adding beds to them, but we don’t know.The current rate of placement for the Chicago shelter system is about 15% — of the 150 or so people who call 311 every day seeking shelter, about 22 will get a bed.So is almost every single bed being taken by an asylum seeker? And what happens to the people who aren’t asylum seekers? If they are getting priority, why?
EZ: The city does have a separate program, a separate track for asylum seekers, though?
DF: It used to, and it made that argument very strongly in the beginning, now we’re doing this differently. But if you call up the shelters, and you say, “Who’s in your shelter?” the census is mixed now.
EZ: But the Inn of Chicago is all asylum seekers?
DF: Yes. And so we don’t know who is a priority placement anymore. This may sound familiar from our last conversation: More demand, fewer locations. And that just raises the immediate questions:
What is going on here? And what is the long term plan? You got more people coming in? You’re placing more people into shelters? You seem to be prioritizing some folks over others for reasons that aren’t clear.
EZ: They’re prioritizing asylum seekers?
DF: Yes. And maybe there’s a really good reason for that. But when you just look at these raw numbers, it’s, like, wait a minute. Part of the covenant we have with the homeless should be that if they need a place to sleep, it’s there for them.
EZ : Where are they going in the city when they can’t get shelter?Are they going under viaducts? Are they going to tent camps?
DF: Those who don’t have shelter are ending up on the CTA , in emergency-room waiting areas, in tent camps and sleeping at police stations.
EZ: We were talking about the conditions at the Inn of Chicago, you said they have two families to a room. Do they have refrigerators, microwave ovens? I mean, this is a hotel, right?
DF: These folks are not allowed to bring fresh food or food that is unpackaged into their rooms. They are allowed to have food that you can heat up in a microwave and they are allowed to eat in the cafeteria, but they can’t bring it out of the cafeteria.
There are no refrigerators for them. And with 900 people, there are two microwaves. And that’s one of the reasons why people are coming to other meals in the area because of these rules, It’s s not that they’re starved — but they’re given just one hot meal a day. That meal is from Open Kitchen, which is the company that serves the Chicago Public Schools. And if your kids went to CPS, as mine did, you can ask them, “Well, what do you think of the food?”
And for the other meals, they get a sandwich, pop and chips. And so you can just put yourself in that situation. You’re gonna look around for a good meal.
EZ: They get one hot meal, a day, seven days a week?
DF: No, just five days a week. They don’t get hot meals on the weekends. There are 900 people at the Inn of Chicago and there’s two microwave ovens. It’s a little nutty.
EZ: Well what needs to happen here? Pretend I’m mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and tell me what I should do.
DF: The first thing that’s got to happen is you’ve got to appoint someone who’s responsible for the existing asylum shelters.
Because if we’re in this situation as the asylum seekers are, in which there’s two families per one hotel room, that’s got to be spread out. That’s just unethical.
The second thing is, we’ve got to have a consistent policy — even if it’s difficult — of distributing resources.
Here’s quote from a letter sent by the City Clerk’s office to a local not-for-profit:
We continue to experience high volumes of new arrivals from Venezuela attending “open” events. We suggest future events be listed as “closed” in order to better serve the residents in the community you are located.
So what they’re effectively saying is, close your resources— despite these being government provided resources — to asylum seekers.
On the basis of what? That they are Venezuelan?
That’s just deeply unethical. We are one city, this is not that big of an issue, we can share.
EZ: How many asylum seekers are there in the city?
DF: At the moment, about 2,000 to 3000 are being housed by the city, in either the existing shelter system or the distinct shelter system for asylum seekers. The total amount is probably much higher than that, because the city is only reporting the number of people that it has put into shelters. ]
There’s an additional 600 to 700 that have been moved out of shelters and housed. So you’re getting somewhere around 3000 that are accounted for and here are close to 7000 total that have come through the system. It doesn’t account for people who have come through but never entered the shelter system.
The last Point in Time count released in 2022, Chicagoans sleeping outside, in places not meant for human habitation or in shelters showed 3,875, with 2,612 in shelters and 1,263 outside.
Note that many people argue that this is an undercount of people sleeping outside, but at a minimum, we are looking at a doubling of the number of people sleeping in shelters and who knows how many outside?
EZ: Who makes an effort to keep track of the asylum seekers? Because they are going to have to show up for their asylum hearings and so on.
DF: Good question. I don’t know. In terms of the work that we’re doing and looking at homeless shelters and stuff, it’s a good question. I don’t know the answer.
EZ: Is the Inn of Chicago the only hotel property used in this way?
DF: There are seven other locations that are housing asylum seekers in them. Our belief is that the lease negotiated with the Inn of Chicago set a different set of rules.
EZ: What kind of differences are you talking about?
DF: Such as where you can store food. There have been other shelters, for example, where they had space in the refrigerators and could do some of their own cooking; where they could have a wider variety of food. And I’m speaking specifically about food in this case.
EZ: Let’s go back to this mythical conversation between you and mayor-elect Johnson. Where do the resources need to be directed?
DF: The next thing that needs to happen is we need to accommodate this average increase of 150 to 160 people a month .
And so planning ahead and thinking about where’s the best place to create this, and what is the best system to have? To make an obvious point — or what I hope is an obvious point — renting hotel rooms on the Mag Mile to house the population may not be the most cost-efficient way to do it. And looking at maybe other options in different locations and expanding those, has got to happen.
It’s tricky, right? Many of these people are finding work. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legal work, but they are finding work. And so we don’t have to be in a permanent shelter situation, if we can increase the help to find housing, to extend benefits, such as extending some of the programs, such as first months deposits on rent, that exist for the rest of us. It might be an effective way to move more people out quickly. It’s tricky, though.
EZ: I’m remembering a story that I saw recently about a controversy that broke out in a neighborhood where they were going to house asylum seekers in a school that had been decommissioned, and the neighbors had a fit. They didn’t want those people there.
DF: Yes, but there are also a whole lot of generous people in the city who have extended a hand. And what you’re seeing– going back to the piece that I read from the City to the delegate agency saying don’t serve them– is a pitting of one population against another. In this case, you’re pitting two very low-income groups against each other. And we don’t need to be doing that.
If you think about the total number of people involved in this conversation that we’re talking about, it’s under 10,000. And we are a city of 2.8 million people. We have 1 million housing units in this city. We can do this. But instead we’re sort of squabbling over little pieces of it. And, people are seeing this influx of people into the neighborhood but no increase of resources going to that location. And that’s part of what creates the conflict.
EZ: So it’s a resource problem? But it also seems like it’s a coordination problem. But there’s not a lot of people working together, pulling on the oars in the same direction as that.
DF: And it’s also an information problem and a transparency problem. We didn’t know these folks were coming to the Inn ofChicago, we could have prepared for it much better. While the city didn’t know that the buses were starting in August of 2022, that was over six months ago. And we still don’t have a plan?
So not telling people what you’re doing creates friction, and makes cooperation harder. And that’s a lesson hopefully, that, going forward.
EZ: When you talk to the people who are in this asylum-seeking community, what are they telling you about their experiences?
DF: Well, one of the things that they were saying is that they’re not going back, but they feel like the city is trying to move them out of these shelter locations by making unreasonable rules. And we find that the biggest single thing they want is to find work. This is a population that wants to move forward.
(NOTE— I sought a response to this interview Wednesday from city officials but did not get an answer by the end of business. If I receive a response I’ll print it)