CHICAGO (CBS) – Mayor Brandon Johnson this week announced a new initiative to move migrants out of police stations and into churches, even with work beginning on a large tent camp for asylum seekers in the Brighton Park neighborhood.
Dubbed the "Unity Initiative," the mayor on Tuesday joined a group of faith leaders and philanthropic groups to announce that 17 churches will begin providing shelter and other services for migrants as soon as Wednesday. The number of churches participating in the program could expand later.
John Zayas, associate pastor at Grace and Peace Church in Austin, said the goal is to start sending buses to police stations on Wednesday.
"The time is now. We want to start sending the buses and picking up folks," Zayas said. "Boots on the ground, starting tomorrow, and we're going to start filling them up."
Zayas said each church will take in 20 migrants and help connect them with social services and other resources to get them on the path to finding jobs and permanent homes.
Some of the churches are already housing migrants, so starting Wednesday, the Unity Initiative plans to bring 100 people from police districts to their churches, giving them things like boots to keep them warm in the winter, and once they're settled into permanent housing, home goods to get them started.
"We are prepared to receive the migrants compassionately," said Dr. Michael Eaddy, pastor missionary of People's Church of the Harvest.
Johnson said the new program will prioritize pregnant women, children, and migrants still sleeping at police stations.
"I hope everyone follows in this example that our faith community is setting today because everyone has something that they can do. Everyone can contribute to this mission. The timing could not be more crucial. We cannot abandon families and asylum seekers and let them go through Chicago's winter alone," Johnson said.
In addition to providing temporary shelter, churches participating in the program will supply food, hold winter clothing drives, and help with social services to find jobs and permanent housing.
"The history books will tell that this city, Chicago, welcomed the migrants and stood strong when the storms were coming. They stood strong for those who are marginalized," Zayas said.
since the influx of migrants first arrived in Chicago more than a year ago.
It now serves as a hub for migrants, offering a food pantry and resource center filled with donations to give to those in need.
"As long as the crisis is there, we're there," Zayas said.
Johnson said the Unity Initiative will come at no cost to taxpayers. Zayas said various charity groups have committed $350,000 to fund the program.
The announcement of the new initiative came as the Mayor's office confirmed construction could begin as soon as Wednesday on the city's first tent "base camp" for migrants in Brighton Park, at 38th and California.
Gardaworld, a private security firm hired by the state and city to build the camp, delivered equipment and other materials to the site at 38th and California on Monday and Tuesday, began to "lay out materials, measure and begin placing bases for structures on the site," Mayor Brandon Johnson's spokesman, Ronnie Reese, said in an email.
Construction did indeed begin Wednesday. Crew were seen working on the structure during the day.
Gov. JB Pritzker has announced $65 million in funding to build the Brighton Park tent camp and turn a vacant CVS store in Little Village into a migrant shelter.
Upon opening, the tent camp in Brighton Park will house roughly 500 migrants but will eventually be equipped to take on 2,000.
The announcement that construction in Brighton Park could begin Wednesday came after. Ald. On Saturday, Julia Ramirez (12th) announced the mayor's office had informed her construction would begin on Monday, but the mayor's office later said construction would begin "at a later date."
Ramirez has said she is opposed to building the tent camp at 38th and California and has criticized the Johnson administration for not yet providing her with a report on an environmental assessment of the site after tests reportedly revealed heavy metal contamination in the soil.
"There was heavy metal identified. There was a remediation that took place last week," Ramirez said Monday.
Protesters who have staged multiple rallies against the tent camp plan and have repeatedly tried to block workers from reaching the site have posted a sign stating, "This land is contaminated."
It's still unclear when the tent camp could open, but the mayor vowed no migrants would be moved in until it's been proven the site is safe. Johnson reiterated that answers about the soil contamination are coming but said all environmental testing has not yet been completed.
"There is no information that is available that you do not have," Johnson said. "The assessment that is ongoing will be provided by the end of the week."
Ramirez said she's still trying to get her hands on the city's environmental assessment of the site while remediation work at the site continues to clean up the contamination.
"I haven't seen any sort of physical report. Nothing has been sent to me directly," she said, adding that she's been told, "they found soil that was toxic, that they would remove that soil, and that they would go through a process where the test results would come back positive and that that soil is no longer toxic."
Reese said details on the environmental assessment of the site would be made public later this week.
"Again, common mitigation strategies are ongoing and anticipated for completion by the end of this week, weather permitting. The City is confident that the property will be suited for the purpose for which it will be used," Reese said in an email.
For volunteers who work with the asylum seekers, this help cannot come soon enough, with temperatures falling below freezing the last several nights and hundreds of migrants still sleeping outside police stations in simple camping tents.
"We have significant fears about things like frostbite [and] hypothermia. People here aren't used to the cold at all," volunteer Lydia Wong said. "We've had a year to prepare for this. This is not a surprise, and yet we still have the city plan for new arrivals in Chicago is to be dumped on a sidewalk."
Like the mayor's plan for city-run shelters, the goal is to move people into permanent housing and out of churches or tent camps in 60 days.
The city also is continuing work on another proposed tent site at 115th and Halsted in Morgan Park. Crews are continuing to prepare the site for construction and are conducting an environmental assessment there, but the city has yet to announce when tents will start going up there.
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