Expired food, infections, infestations reported at Chicago police stations serving as makeshift shelters for immigrants

With resources exhausted and limited shelter beds available in Chicago, immigrants who have been sent here have been sleeping and eating meals on the floors of police stations in recent weeks.

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Neislymar Gonzalez’s two children, a daughter 5 years old and a son 4 years old, at the Central District police station in Chicago.

Neislymar Gonzalez’s 2 children, a daughter 5 years old and a son 4 years old, at the Central District police station in Chicago.

Natalie Garcia / For the Sun-Times

Chicago’s response to a growing immigrant crisis has turned police stations into makeshift shelters where asylum seekers have been provided with expired meal rations and where infections and infestations are a common problem.

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Outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot has taken aim at Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas who has been sending immigrants to Chicago and other sanctuary cities as a response to President Joe Biden’s border policies. In an open letter Sunday, Lightfoot told Abbott that her administration was aware he planned to resume busing immigrants to Chicago and other cities on Monday, noting that 8,000 have already been sent here since August.

“Nearly all the migrants have been in dire need of food, water and clothing, and many needed extensive medical care,” she wrote. “Some of the individuals you placed on buses were women in active labor, and some were victims of sexual assault. None of these urgent needs were addressed in Texas.”

But with resources exhausted and limited shelter beds available in Chicago, immigrants who have been sent here have been sleeping and eating meals on the floors of police stations in recent weeks.

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Wildher Hernandez, 29, and Meylin Benaventa, 28, from Venezuela shelter at the Central District police station in Chicago with their son.

Natalie Garcia / For the Sun-Times

Boxes of meal rations that were sent to the Gresham District last week had expired in September 2020, and a notice was sent out urging police officials to return any expired meals they’d received, according to sources with knowledge of the situation and photos shared with the Sun-Times.

“How do you let stuff out like that?” a police supervisor asked. “Even during COVID, when we were going through that, they were giving us hand sanitizer that was two years expired.”

John Catanzara, the fiery president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, said bed bugs have been “a consistent issue.” There also has been a lice problem at the Near West District and cases of chicken pox at the Shakespeare District, according to Catanzara, who said it’s “improper” to use police buildings and resources to house immigrants.

“It’s such a delicate balance to try and explain to people this is a safety [and] health issue, a humanitarian issue,” he said. “This isn’t an anti-migrant stance one way or the other. We just are not equipped to do this.”

A City Hall source said hospitals, hotels and short-term rentals have all declined to take in the asylum seekers because they view the crisis as a public health matter, leaving city officials in a tough spot.

Top mayoral aides warned City Council members last Friday that Chicago is out of money, space and time to handle the crisis — and Lightfoot recently warned alderpersons that the situation will likely get worse.

“On May 11, 2023, Title 42 will expire and some estimated 40,000 new arrivals may cross into the United States,” Lightfoot wrote in a letter, referring to the order that the Trump administration used to restrict migrants’ entry into the United States.

“Given that the current practice for organizations in border states is to purchase plane tickets and send new arrivals to Chicago and New York, we have been preparing for an even greater surge,” the mayor wrote.

Three weeks ago, volunteers who work with immigrants and refugees started to notice that more arrivals were ending up at police stations, said Mary Schaaf, a volunteer with the online community Refugee Community Connection.

“We need a coordinated effort from the city and the federal government,” Schaaf said. “And that’s what’s been lacking since back in August.”

Some of the new arrivals have stayed at police stations with no beds for as long as a week, according to Schaaf, who noted that some residents have opened up their homes to allow individuals to take a shower or wash their clothes while they wait for a city shelter.

A family staying at a police station last week developed what was believed to be lice or bed bugs, leading to a logistical scramble to get them treatment, said Dr. Evelyn Figueroa of the Pilsen Food Pantry, who has been assisting in community efforts to help the new arrivals.

“It’s bizarre that a poor city worker is driving to bring them supplies,” Figueroa said, recounting the efforts to get the family treatment. The family was eventually moved to a shelter so they could be sequestered while getting treatment.

Figueroa is pushing for aldermanic offices to use their funds to hire a person who can coordinate social services at police stations that have turned into welcoming centers. She said she thinks that would make it easier to get immigrants medical attention and food while they wait for a shelter bed to open up.

In the long term, the city should become more flexible about what can be considered a shelter, she said.

“How long are we going to fight about politics and let people sleep in police stations?” Figueroa said. “We are trying to separate social work from policing, and yet we are coercing them into these roles we know are not right for them, not what they signed up for and overwhelm the police stations.”

A police source complained that officers are being given “zero assistance” from the city, leaving them to personally support those in need. He recalled sending a tactical officer to grab food for a group of immigrants and personally purchasing baby wipes and diapers for an infant after his district started filling up in recent weeks.

“If you have nice officers or nice organizations, they might [buy] food for migrants,” the source said. “But if we don’t, they are essentially on their own for days until they get picked up.”

In the Austin District on the West Side, Asdrubal Brito, 25, said officers have shared hamburgers and chicken sandwiches with his family of five for the last three days. Still, he worries about getting food, particularly for his 3-year-old daughter who also doesn’t have diapers.

“We don’t have money,” said Brito, who has been sleeping on the floor without blankets. “Being here, who do we ask for help with food?”

Two immigrant families sheltering at the Central District police station in Chicago.

Two immigrant families sheltering at the Central District police station in Chicago.

Natalie Garcia/For the Sun-Times

Neislymar Gonzalez, 24, has spent the last five days in the Central District with her two children and husband. People have brought them sandwiches, fruit and milk, though there’s no telling when they’ll get placed into a shelter. The family said they don’t have any money left to go to another city.

“At least we aren’t on the street,” Gonzalez said in Spanish as she sat on top of blankets where the family sleeps in a corner of the front lobby.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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