South Shore leaders left out of city’s plan to convert high school into shelter for families seeking asylum

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office plans to host a community meeting Thursday to discuss the plan, but few details have been made public.

SHARE South Shore leaders left out of city’s plan to convert high school into shelter for families seeking asylum
The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave in South Shore, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. The building is a potential choice for a shelter for asylum-seeker. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office announced Tuesday that the former school would be used as a shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Community leaders in South Shore say they were left in the dark about plans to convert a shuttered high school into a shelter for families seeking asylum as Chicago experiences a surge in immigration.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office is organizing a community meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday at the former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave., according to an online invitation. Lightfoot’s office Tuesday wouldn’t confirm details of the plan.

“A community meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 4th, to inform residents about the use of the former South Shore High School as a temporary respite site. We will continue collaborating with community-based organizations and local and community leaders to support those in need,” according to a statement issued Tuesday afternoon by the mayor’s office.

In a statement, Ald. Michelle Harris, whose 8th Ward includes the school site, said she does not support housing newly arrived immigrant families at the shuttered school because she has questions and concerns about the funding, safety and “humanity,” of the plan. Harris said she plans to press for alternative solutions.

“I was recently notified by the mayor’s office that the old South Shore High School building will house migrant families. Housing sites are operating in every part of the city, and this site is one of the last facilities available to house migrant families,” Harris said in the statement.

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.

Dianne Hodges, of the South Merrill Community Garden, said she was among more than a dozen South Shore community leaders who were not informed about the plan. She said city officials need to communicate better with residents.

“I’m disturbed with the fact that so many deals are made under the table and behind the door,” Hodges said. “And they feel like they can give us a meeting, and we’ll go away, and they’ll be able to do what they want to do. That has to stop.”

Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks the neighborhood is being used as a “dumping ground,” when residents have tried to be intentional about planning decisions.

“Is it the best use of the building, and is it the right solution for asylum seekers?” Trice asked. “And that’s what’s troubling to me, because are these decisions being made just randomly?”

The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave in South Shore, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. The building is a potential choice for a shelter for asylum-seeker. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave. Community members want city officials to do a better job communicating their plans for the site.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For years, South Shore residents have pushed to have a say in the use of the property that was leased to the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Fire Department. At one point, residents thought an agreement had been reached for the space to eventually be used for education, cultural and community purposes, said LaShawn Brown, of South Shore Works.

“Every time we change administrations, it seems as though what was talked about with the community, what arrangements had been made with the community goes by the wayside,” Brown said.

Craig Carrington, who is part of an alumni group from South Shore High School, said it hasn’t had access to the property when it’s organized events for former students to get together.

The possibility of the shelter comes as residents are pushing for a community benefits agreement to avoid displacement as a result of the nearby Obama Presidential Center.

Dixon Romeo, executive director of Not Me We, said the demand for housing for immigrants shows the greater need for affordable housing in Chicago that could have been used to shelter the new arrivals and other unhoused residents.

“We can’t let the mayor’s poor planning pit Black folks against Brown folks,” Romeo said. “Our common target is the source of why we have issues in our communities.”

News about plans for the South Shore shelter was first reported by Block Club Chicago.

The meeting will come about a week after officials at a City Council committee meeting said the city was out of money, space and time to handle the influx of asylum seekers that has made its way to Chicago since August.

A recent uptick in the number of immigrants has resulted in many spending several nights on the floor of police stations as they wait for shelter beds.

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

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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