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Woodlawn residents frustrated over lack of transparency about planned migrant shelter at old school

Woodlawn residents frustrated about lack of transparency in plan for migrant shelter
Woodlawn residents frustrated about lack of transparency in plan for migrant shelter 03:00

CHICAGO (CBS) -- For two months, we have been telling you about possible plans to house migrants at a shuttered South Side elementary school.

People living nearby demanded answers, and finally got them at a community meeting Wednesday night. As CBS 2's Lauren Victory reported Thursday, we finally know more about what the city is doing to shelter migrants bused to Chicago.

Currently, the city is housing migrants at 11 facilities – including the Chicago Parthenon Hostel in Greektown. There are 119 beds for migrants at the hostel, and all 119 are filled.

All the beds for asylum seekers are also filled at a hotel on the Near North Side, and 260 spots are taken at a closed school in the South Loop – even though there is room for only 220.

The Mayor's office said the capacity issue at these temporary shelters is what drove the decision to open up a facility at the former Wadsworth Elementary School, later University of Chicago Charter School, at 6420 S. University Ave.

"The city's hiding everything instead of coming out forward to us," said Woodlawn resident Luis Cardona.

That is how several Woodlawn homeowners feel after what seems like a flip-flop with regard to the old school. They contacted CBS 2 months ago after hearing the building was being turned into temporary housing for migrants.

We first reported on the issue Oct. 24.

"I've been seeing a lot of electricians, and Peoples Gas," Cardona said.

Woodlawn residents outraged over migrant shelter plan 02:02

Preparations continued Thursday. We spotted workers such as elevator repair crews undertaking some last-minute tweaks at the old school. Add that to the list of work orders for new arrivals we obtained – and the running rehab tab of $1.5 million.

But this time, the city is admitting the repair crews are at the school to create an emergency shelter for migrants – while in the past, they denied it.

"Thankfully, a lot of work has been done on it in recent months," Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications manager Matthew Doughtie said at the community meeting Wednesday night.

Indeed, CBS 2 showed you pictures of rehab work on the inside, and construction vans outside, back in October.

But back then, the Chicago Public Schools called it all "routine maintenance work."

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."

Now, apparently, 150 single men and women will be moving into the old school next week.

"Our ideal target start date there is January 6th," Doughtie said at the community meeting.

That leaves only eight days.

"It's not right for them not to let the community know," Cardona said.

Neighbors invited to the community meeting – which was called a "conversation," but did not really involve a discussion – felt whiplashed.

"it's really meetings like this where we're more told than being a partner," a pastor said at the meeting.

"You've not told us any detail about the safety and security infrastructure around that campus," a homeowner added.

City officials did outline the rules that asylum seekers and shelters must follow. They include:

  • An 11 p.m. curfew, after which clients may not leave except for reasons approved by the staff such as employment, or in case of emergency.
  • No visitors allowed.
  • No drugs or alcohol are allowed on the property.

"I'm frustrated," Cardona said.

Woodlawn residents are frustrated with a perceived lack of transparency. But the city is telling residents the situation is fluid, and the decision to move into Wadsworth is in anticipation of more migrants coming.

"We don't necessarily want to sit and wait and see what happens," Nubia Willman of the Mayor's office said at the Wednesday night meeting. "We want to be proactive."

Again, the plan to move ahead with the old Wadsworth building is apparently because of capacity issues faced by existing emergency shelters. In total, the city is housing more than 1,500 migrants in only about 1,400 spots.

We are told buses have brought 3,800 asylum seekers to Chicago in the past four months alone.

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