Gilberto Viera, 22, sits outside an independent migrant shelter in Pilsen where he stayed for several months. 

Gilberto Viera, 22, sits outside a migrant shelter in Pilsen where he’s been staying for about two months during a so-far-unsuccessful search for permanent housing. Volunteers running the shelter want help from the city, including the ability to offer the access to city resources available at city-run shelters.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Volunteer-run migrant shelter in Chicago ‘left in the lurch,’ seeks support from city

Since opening in mid-May, the Pilsen shelter has helped ease the city’s burden, but those running it worry that without city support, it won’t last.

Todo Para Todos — a migrant shelter whose name means “everything for everyone” — was established as a promise that Chicago was a welcoming city. But some promises are hard to keep.

The shelter sprung up in Pilsen in May as the city scrambled to house thousands arriving from Latin America and since then has been a refuge for hundreds.

But after staying afloat for months without city funding, those in charge wonder how long it can last and whether operating a shelter without city support does a disservice to the residents.

“The volunteers are basically being left in the lurch,” volunteer Lindsay Gifford said of the pressure they feel to maintain the shelter. They’re “left responsible for everything that happens in the shelter without city guidance, funding, or even recognition, and the residents are being left behind.”

The shelter was established May 12 inside a former warehouse in the 2000 block of South Racine Avenue by volunteers who had been helping out at the nearby Near West police district station.

The Todo Para Todos migrant shelter in the 2000 block of South Racine Avenue in Pilsen.

The Todo Para Todos migrant shelter in the 2000 block of South Racine Avenue in Pilsen. Since opening in mid-May, the shelter has helped ease the city’s burden, but those running it worry that without city support, it won’t last.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

They were bringing food and other donations to the immigrants staying at the Near West station, but saw the need was much greater than that. So they found the empty warehouse space in Pilsen, welcomed some immigrants from the police station and soon unofficially joined the city’s roster of migrant shelters.

The number of immigrants staying there quickly grew to more than 200, including 75 children, accounting for around 4% of the total of 6,185 immigrants staying in shelters as of Wednesday.

Nearly 12,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since last August. About 850 remain at police stations.

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Unlike the 14 city-run shelters, however, immigrants at Todo cannot access wraparound services for help with housing, health insurance or other forms of assistance.

“The folks in the city shelters eventually get moved into affordable housing, and we have been excluded from that prioritization, so that means the 220 residents in our shelter are being forgotten and left in limbo, even though they’ve been there for months,” Gifford said. “I wonder if they got screwed over.”

Last week, the group sent a letter to the city calling attention to the situation and seeking emergency city support.

Above all, they’re asking for the city to help those staying at the shelter get the same state rental assistance available at city shelters, said Anna DiStefano, another volunteer at the shelter.

Immigrants at city shelters can get money to cover rent and help finding amendable landlords through the state’s Asylum Seekers Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The group applied around a month ago to be able to administer this assistance on its own, but don’t expect a response until August.

It’s asking the city to intervene with its application or to offer a way for immigrants staying at the shelter to access the same resources available in city shelters.

In the meantime, the volunteers say they feel like they’re shouldering the city’s burden.

“If we didn’t’ exist, all the people we had taken in would be at city shelters or sleeping at police stations,” DiStefano said. “We’re being told there is no space there, so my understanding is that they would be on the streets.”

The city did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the letter. The state did not respond to requests for comment on the rental assistance program.

Without city funding, the 150 volunteers have relied on donations, including from the Chicago Greater Food Depository and Pilsen Food Pantry and to the group’s GoFundMe.

The biggest cost, according to the group’s budget, is to a private security firm hired to stay at the shelter overnight after incidents of theft and fighting between residents.

Shelter volunteers and residents voted for the offenders to leave, Gifford said, but ultimately couldn’t enforce it.

“Because our legal status is nothing, we do not have a mandate to get them out of the shelter,” she said. “The residents have obviously caught on to that.”

They hope that by getting recognition from the city as an official shelter, they would have the authority to enforce shelter rules.

Sitting outside the shelter on a recent weekday, a few immigrants staying at the shelter said conditions there were at least an improvement from the police stations.

“This is much better. It’s clean. It’s more comfortable to sleep here,” said Mendelssohn Blanco, a 37-year-old from Venezuela who has been here for a few weeks after staying at the nearby police station.

Still, the migrants wondered whether they had been left out through no fault of their own, simply by being taken to this particular shelter. Aside from finding work, they said housing was their primary concern and that without documentation, such as a utility bill or proof of income, the search feels futile.

“The problem is that it’s not a government shelter,” said Gilberto Viera, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who had been at the shelter for two months. “They thought they were doing us a favor, but all that government help doesn’t come with it.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Contributing: WBEZ reporter Mariah Woelfel.

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Two boys living in the migrant shelter in the 2000 block of South Racine Avenue ride a bicycle outside the shelter.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

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