Amid Chicago’s calls for more help with the migrant crisis and at least one township rejecting millions of dollars to lend support, the Village of Oak Park has taken emergency action to assist hundreds of unhoused migrants on its doorstep.
The Village Board this week approved special spending for the crisis, passed an emergency declaration and provided emergency shelter for more than 100 migrants staying at Chicago’s Austin District police station, half a mile from the village boundary.
Those moves by the suburb come as the city is stretched thin by more than 20,000 migrants who’ve arrived since August 2022, hundreds of whom have ended up at the Austin District station.
Many suburban residents have volunteered at the Austin District station and other stations around the city.
Those volunteers have urged Oak Park to do more, and as the first snow fell Tuesday, they took emergency action with the village to shelter 125 migrants camping outside the station.
“The cold was horrible; we were dying of cold,” said Francis Ramirez Gonzalez, one of the Venezuelan migrants moved to an emergency shelter at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park.
The 33-year-old, her husband and their twin 7-year-olds had been staying in a tent outside the station since August.
They come from the coastal city of Puerto Cabello, where Ramirez Gonzalez’s husband worked on the docks. She was a nurse at a hospital in the nearby city of Valencia.
They left as the country spiraled into crisis, but on Tuesday her concerns were more immediate.
“More than anything, I was scared for them,” she said, nodding at her boys Allan and Aaron, who had a fever that night.
“We were praying to God to protect us, and thank God someone with a great heart arrived who could help.”
Dr. Theresa Chapple, Oak Park’s director of public health, said Thursday that the shelter would close Saturday afternoon.
A village official said “conversations” about “next steps” continued Friday, although Good Shepherd’s pastor, the Rev. Kathy Nolte, previously suggested to the Chicago Sun-Times that as many as 20 migrants might remain.
The move to shelter the migrants came just as the village had approved $150,000 to create an emergency task force to find ways to address the crisis as more migrant families move to the suburb, enroll in schools and use local emergency services.
Trustee Brian Straw, who introduced the task force motion along with fellow trustee Chibuike Enyia, said Monday the impact on the village had been minimal, but with winter ahead, the need will intensify.
“All this is going to result in significant health care costs. We’re going to start seeing an impact in our health care system, downstream impacts,” Straw said, adding, “These are human beings who deserve the dignity of not sleeping on the street.”
On Thursday, Oak Park also approved an emergency declaration to allow the village to approve new contracts quickly, bypassing its regular bidding procedures. That declaration is in effect until Dec. 4.
The village’s new spending matches the amount the state awarded it through a program to support municipalities taking on migrants.
Chicago was awarded $30 million of that $42.5 million program, which is for shelter and housing support, food, wraparound services, legal support and health care.
Joliet Township was awarded the second highest amount, $8.6 million, but declined to accept the money.
A state spokesperson said “a decision has not yet been made with regards to use for the funding that had been awarded to Joliet Township.” Grant amounts are expected to be finalized “mid-November,” the spokesperson said.
Other recipients include Lake County, awarded over $1 million, and downstate Urbana, awarded $250,000.
A Lake County spokesperson said the three local organizations through which the funds will be administered had served 2,000 asylum-seekers in the last year. A spokesperson for Urbana said organizations there had served 300 migrants.
Lake County and Urbana officials have said they don’t plan to pursue any of the funds rejected by Joliet, but many in Oak Park — which applied for $7.5 million — hope the village can get more.
Betty Alzamora, a longtime immigrant advocate, is among those pushing for Oak Park and other suburbs to do more.
Alzamora became involved at the police station after driving by it and being reminded of her days volunteering at the Texas border, where migrants in Mexico would pitch camp for months at a time as they waited to enter the U.S.
“These are horrific conditions, and the fact that we’ve re-created these less than a mile from our home, it’s heartbreaking,” Alzamora said.
She happens to be Venezuelan, but said that isn’t the only thing driving her.
“These are people from my homeland, but also it’s just the right thing to do,” she said. “When you think of the little kids, the babies, we have to do something.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.
More coverage of migrants in Chicago
Where to house migrants
- Chicago signs $29.3 million contract to build ‘winterized base camps’ for migrants
- Plans for migrant shelter at Amundsen Park field house on hold as city seeks alternate site
- As migrant crisis grows will faith groups step up and offer unused buildings?
- Lawsuit seeks to stop Chicago from using public buildings to house migrants
Long waits for work visas
- Asylum-seekers’ long wait for work permits: ‘It feels terrible, especially because I’m used to working’
- Chicago Democrats are pushing Biden to speed up work permits for migrants. Will they succeed?
- A year since the first buses of migrants arrived in Chicago, the journey to asylum for Vannessa Olivera, others is just beginning
How to pay
- City Council OKs spending another $34.5 million on burgeoning migrant crisis
- Preckwinkle pitches 2024 budget with more money for asylum-seeker health care
- Worst-case scenario: Chicago budget gap could reach $1.9 billion by 2026
- Chicago faces 2024 budget shortfall of $538 million — more than a third of it tied to migrant crisis