Lawsuit seeks to stop former South Shore High School from being turned into shelter for migrants: ‘We were forced to do this’

The suit says that a plan to house asylum-seekers at the shuttered school violates a lease agreement and names the city of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools as defendants.

SHARE Lawsuit seeks to stop former South Shore High School from being turned into shelter for migrants: ‘We were forced to do this’
(From left) Craig Harrington, attorney Frank Avila, residents Natasha Dunn and Darnell Jones stand outside the former South Shore High School. They’re suing to halt the city of Chicago’s plan to house asylum-seekers at the school.

(From left) Craig Harrington, attorney Frank Avila, residents Natasha Dunn and Darnell Jones stand outside the former South Shore High School. They’re suing to halt the city of Chicago’s plan to house asylum-seekers at the school.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

South Shore residents filed a lawsuit hoping to stop a former high school from being turned into a temporary shelter for asylum-seekers, saying the plan violates the city’s lease agreement with the building.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Cook County circuit court, names the city and the Chicago Public Schools as defendants and seeks a temporary emergency restraining order against the plan.

“We were forced to do this, we had to do this,” Natasha Dunn, one of the residents named as a petitioner in the lawsuit, said at a news conference Thursday with neighbors outside the shuttered South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave.

“This is not about the migrants,” Dunn said. “This is about the entire city of Chicago ignoring our community because this school belongs to us.”

Dunn said neighbors weren’t included in conversations about the plan to house asylum-seekers at the school.

The lawsuit says that in March 2019 the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance establishing a lease agreement between the city as tenant and the Chicago Board of Education of the City of Chicago as landlord. The lease authorized the city’s use of the former school for the Chicago police and fire departments.

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Attorney Frank Avila represents residents. “If one of the groups here said we wanted to house at-risk kids, we want to house homeless people, they would be stopped,” he said.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“The purpose of this lease was to allocate the building specifically for the use of these departments. Therefore, any action that deviates from this intended purpose, such as transforming the building into a refugee shelter, would be in violation of the lease agreement,” the suit states.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office was criticized by Woodlawn residents earlier this year when a shuttered school was converted into a shelter for immigrants. And now residents in neighboring South Shore are expressing similar frustrations.

Frank Avila, the attorney representing the residents, said the plan also violates zoning ordinances around the school.

“This is not zoned for residential housing,” Avila said. “If one of the groups here said we wanted to house at-risk kids, we want to house homeless people, they would be stopped.”

City officials have said the school would serve as a respite shelter for 250 to 500 migrants at a time until more permanent housing is found for them.

The suit is the latest move by concerned residents who hope to keep asylum-seekers from being housed in the neighborhood, saying the resources being spent to help the migrants should instead be used to tackle issues of inequality in the area.

“We’re talking about an underfunded community with closed schools, with closed programs, with closed social services, housing issues and the like,” Avila said. “There are social services that are needed for low-income residents, whatever their race. None of these resources have been made available.”

Dunn said “we expect the city, the state and everyone to provide us humanitarian aid,” and wants an office of Black Americans created in city government to help residents tackle their issues.

The lawsuit also says that housing asylum-seekers in the school would be unsafe not just for residents, but for the migrants being sheltered.

It says that, alhough authorities have established rules and regulations for the migrants who will stay at the school, “no provisions have been established regarding expectations for their conduct within the surrounding residential area. This lack of clarity poses a potential threat to the safety, property and overall well-being” of the residents.

Avila said housing the migrants in neighborhoods that have high levels of crime could have adverse effects on their mental health, and they should be placed in safer areas.

“If we’re talking about migrants and asylum-seekers that came from violent nations, that came from war, that came from poverty, why are we putting them in an area where they could be further traumatized, in high-crime areas? Avila said. “You’re putting them in areas where there is a different culture, a different language and they also are in an area of high crime, so we’re further traumatizing them, those who may have PTSD or other issues.”

The suit also says that, although the police have said they will have round-the-clock presence at the location, residents have experienced slow response times — ranging from four to six hours — for incidents in the neighborhood.

“This contradiction raises concerns about the ability of authorities to fulfill their assurances,” the suit says.

Neighborhood residents have said they wanted the building turned over to the community so it can serve as a hub for youth, offering art classes, courses on entrepreneurship, environmentalism and more.

A community meeting on the plan last week turned chaotic after some people, angry, refused to hear the city’s presentation on the shelter and shouted down officials.

“The city does not comment on ongoing litigation,” the law department said.

Avila said a hearing on the suit was scheduled for Friday.

How to help migrants coming to Chicago

How to help immigrants coming to Chicago


New immigrants in Chicago need basic necessities, the city says. Here is a list of recommended actions from organizations, community groups and legislators in Chicago offering aid:
  • Find out how to support the city’s official partnership with churches — the Unity Initiative — at its website, or support the Faith Community Initiative, an independent effort, at its website.
  • The Chicago Furniture Bank is helping furnish their homes. Request a furniture pickup at its website, or donate items to its warehouse at 4801 S. Whipple St. in Brighton Park.
  • New Life Centers, the nonprofit arm of the network of local churches, has taken the lead in welcoming migrants at the city’s designated site for bus arrivals, along with city staff. To donate to that effort, as well as support their other efforts, visit the Nuevos Vecinos section of its website.
  • Instituto del Progreso Latino has an Amazon wishlist from which people can purchase items, and Cradles to Crayons has a wishlist and a list of locations where items can be dropped off, as does One Warm Coat.
  • Find volunteering opportunities on Chi Welcome, a Facebook page dedicated to helping migrants around Chicago; Neighbors Helping Our New Neighbors, a South Side specific group; and Refugee Community Connection, which is aimed at helping the refugee community more broadly.

Find more information here.

If you are an organization offering assistance to immigrants and would like to be added to this list, contact tips@suntimes.com.

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