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City officials tell Woodlawn residents they plan to bring asylum seekers to old school by next week

City officials say they want to bring migrants to old Woodlawn school soon
City officials say they want to bring migrants to old Woodlawn school soon 02:02

CHICAGO (CBS) -- South Side residents were fired up Wednesday night after they were left in the dark about plans to turn a school in their Woodlawn neighborhood into a shelter for migrants.

CBS 2's Lauren Victory has been fighting to get the truth from the city for months about the reported plans for a migrant shelter at the former Wadsworth Elementary School and later University of Chicago Charter School, at 6420 S. University Ave.

The city had said there were no plans to turn the old school into a migrant shelter, despite construction work being done there and documents that suggested otherwise. On Wednesday night, city officials said indeed there is such a plan.

The community meeting Wednesday night at the Harriet M. Harris Park fieldhouse, 6200 S. Drexel Ave., was advertised as a "conversation." But there wasn't really a discussion.

Instead, the city launched into a presentation about why the old Wadsworth Elementary is set to become home to asylum seekers by next week.

There was finally some transparency from the city about what is really going on at the old school.

"We've done everything from installing toilets to elevator repair, furnace and heater repairs, to just general facility cleaning," said Office of Emergency Management and Communications manager Matthew Doughtie.

These are all things CBS 2 told you was happening months ago.

Our first report on the construction at the old school and the reports of plans for a migrant shelter aired on Oct. 24. We went back to Wadsworth the very next day after obtaining pictures of the extensive rehab taking place inside – new pipes, buffed floors, and bathrooms under construction.

Our story really comes down to the words of Woodlawn resident Tracey Thompson.

"We as taxpayers – we deserve a lot more transparency and forthrightness," she said in October.

But the Mayor's office repeatedly denied the plan was to create a migrant shelter.

The Mayor's office told us on Oct. 25, "There are no plans to use the vacant Wadsworth Elementary School as a temporary shelter for newly-arrived asylum seekers at this time."

The Chicago Public Schools said it was "routine maintenance work." CPS never got back to us when we discovered a records request we obtained showing $1.5 million spent on plumbing, environmental, and other rehab work at Wadsworth.

Last month, Victory got the chance to ask Mayor Lori Lightfoot about plans for the school. She did not get a straight answer.

"We're about making sure we can do the work and prepare for every contingency, so we looked at a number of different locations all over the city - and obviously, vacant schools were on the list," Mayor Lightfoot said in November.

But at the meeting Wednesday night, officials said indeed the plan is for this specific vacant school to become a migrant shelter.

"Our ideal target start date there is January 6," Doughtie said.

Less than a week and a half from now, the plan is to move in nearly 150 migrants – likely single men and women.

So what happened?

"We had this conversation about Wadsworth, and then suddenly the conversation stopped - and I want to clear up the reason behind that," Nubia Willman of the Mayor's office said at the meeting.

Willman said migrant arrivals decreased for a while, but now they may ramp up again.

The city's current emergency migrant shelters are above capacity.

"We're really stretching the limits of what they can handle right now," Doughtie said.

The seemingly done deal stunned residents.

"What exact vetting process is being done?" one resident said.

"There are other places that you guys could've done this with," another said.

"Did you call us here to find out what we wanted - or did you call us here to tell us what you're going to give us?" a woman said to applause.

Again, the city is saying migrants could move into the old school as soon as next Friday. Residents begged the city to reconsider that deadline.

As recently as Tuesday, the Mayor's office would not confirm to CBS 2 that such plans were in motion.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) told Victory earlier Wednesday, "My phone, of course, has been blowing off the hook, because people were like, 'I thought they said they weren't bringing it here.'"

The city released this statement:

"The City continues to work with the County, State, local leaders, and community-based partners to explore all viable options for temporary shelters to respond to emergent needs for new arrivals. The situation regarding Wadsworth Elementary School is not a mystery. Since the first bus arrived to Chicago, we saw an influx in the demand for resources as we received multiple buses per day. However, over time, the bus arrivals decreased and the need for housing was not as demanding as we it had once been. Over the last four months, things have changed. The City will continue to work with the County, State, local leaders, and community-based partners to explore all viable options for temporary shelters to respond to emergent needs for new arrivals as it sees fit, and we will continue to evaluate and update plans as needed over the coming weeks and months."

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