City’s 311 help line can’t keep up with requests for shelter

Calls to 311 for shelter have surged since migrants began arriving here by the busload, the third such surge since 2019. Fixing the overburdened system will be a tough test for Mayor Johnson’s administration.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson, right, and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) meet migrants staying at the 12th Police District station at 1412 S. Blue Island Ave on the near west side, Tuesday, May 16, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson (right) and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) meet migrants staying at the 12th Police District station on the Near West Side, May 16.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It’s another sign of the migrant crisis Chicago has been coping with for months: the city’s already-overburdened 311 system is stretched almost to the breaking point by calls from people looking for shelter.

What’s worse: Because the city’s data are woefully incomplete in some cases, according to a WBEZ analysis, it’s difficult to tell how bad the problem really is.

Fixing what’s wrong will be another test for the Johnson administration, and there are promising signs — the city is anticipating more federal help for those who are homeless, and has a nascent plan to buy and repurpose hotels and motels into shelters — that we hope will bear fruit.

Meanwhile, here’s what the analysis of monthly 311 call data for March 2019 to March 2023 found: The latest uptick in shelter calls began when migrants started arriving in Chicago by the busload, sent here beginning in August 2022 in a political stunt by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.



The 311 system had twice experienced a surge in shelter calls previously: when the state’s moratorium on evictions ended in late 2021 and when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. The numbers eventually fell but remain far higher than in 2019.

In the first few months of 2023, the average wait time for shelter requests to be resolved rose to more than 50 hours, from less than 10 hours in 2020.

Yet the data on 311 calls is often faulty, and in some cases lacks crucial information such as call outcome or the specifics about calls designated as “completed.” And through April of this year, call volume outpaced the same period in 2022, while funding for the 311 system has remained mostly flat.

As Douglas Schenkelberg of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless told WBEZ, “[T]he fact that we have a system that wasn’t working before we had a growth in new arrivals coming into the city makes it easy to see that this was not going to work well.”

Chicago will have to make tough fiscal choices to live up to its well-intentioned, but costly, goal of being a sanctuary city — and still do right by its existing residents who lack housing, decent jobs and quality education.

And it bears repeating: The problem isn’t just local. Chicago and other cities targeted by Abbott should not have to go it alone to take in desperate asylum seekers. Abbott’s political stunt has been disgraceful — but Texas and other states on the southern border shouldn’t have to go it alone either.

If America truly wants to remain a country that welcomes newcomers, the entire nation has to pitch in.

That requires Washington to get its act together on immigration reform.

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