At O’Hare Airport, hundreds of migrants are stuck at a shelter that’s overcrowded, unsanitary

A curtained-off portion of the airport has been used for months as a migrant shelter, and advocates worry about the conditions.

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migrant family shelter O’Hare Airport

A family from Venezuela said they were waiting to be moved to a shelter outside O’Hare, where many migrants are staying in a curtained-off section of the airport.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After a long trek to Chicago from Venezuela and other South and Central American countries, hundreds of migrants have landed at O’Hare Airport in recent weeks to find overcrowded, unsanitary and unpleasant conditions.

Among the complaints in the airport shelter: poor quality food like instant ramen; lack of access to health care, showers and laundry; inadequate bedding; and no support for placing children in schools.

The migrants arrive at O’Hare after being flown from Texas and other states.

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The airport is a temporary stop, and it has experienced sharp increases in the number of people staying there. Length of stays is also rising, with families sometimes spending two weeks at the airport amid poor conditions.

“O’Hare is just a holding place for the incoming flights, technically,” said Vianney Marzullo, a lead volunteer with the Police Station Response Team advocacy group.

As stay become longer at O’Hare, Marzullo warns of a “big public safety issue” that has police station volunteers wondering how they can provide services at the airport, or at least provide donations of bedding for those sleeping on cardboard using airplane blankets. Having people stay longer than three days is a public health issue, she said.

Onomir, a migrant who asked that her full name not be used, spent almost a week there with her daughter.

“I’m grateful they gave us a roof over our heads,” the single mother said, “but six days without a bed and without a shower, that was inhumane.”

The mother from Venezuela and her daughter eventually were taken to a police station and then placed in a shelter in early August.

The problems at O’Hare follow a doubling of the number of incoming migrants to Chicago seeking more long-term shelter. As of Thursday, that figure was 2,089.

At the airport, the number was 411, up from just 31 at the beginning of August. That population is almost four times the capacity limit initially set by the city.

A private contractor, Favorite Healthcare Staffing, oversees the care of migrants at O’Hare on behalf of the city. A representative of the agency declined to comment.

security guard curtained-off section O’Hare International Airport asylum seekers shelter

A security guard walks past the curtained-off section of O’Hare Airport where migrants are staying.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The city didn’t directly respond to questions about the living conditions but said the sharp increase was due to the now daily flights arriving from Texas.

“The city is working to open additional shelters in order to provide temporary shelter for asylum-seekers arriving daily,” a city spokesperson said.

In February, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she would order the removal of homeless people from O’Hare after an increase drew national attention. Advocates said at the time that the airport normally draws hundreds of homeless in the cold weather months and last winter had seen a spike in occupants.

The shelter for the migrants is on the ground floor of a building opposite the Hilton Hotel. It’s behind a large black curtain.

The murmur of voices can be heard behind the curtain, and occasionally, someone lifts it to reveal a mess of possessions and people.

curtained-off section O’Hare International Airport asylum-seekers migrant shelter

There’s been a sharp increase of migrants at O’Hare Airport due to daily flights arriving from Texas and other states, city officials say.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Leaders at the volunteer medical team treating migrants at police stations were concerned after carrying out an emergency assignment there Saturday.

They saw more than 300 patients, including more than 100 children, said Sara Izquierdo, the team’s founder. Many were vomiting from the food.

“Cereal is not enough, [instant ramen] is not enough,” Izquierdo said. “I’d really like to see an improvement on the food at O’Hare, even if it’s talking to the restaurants there to see if they can get together leftover food at the end of the day.”

On Wednesday, a family leaving the shelter to find a hot meal complained they had been there two weeks.

“We’re not doing well here,” the father admitted, asking his name not be used for fear of being kicked out. “We’ve got to leave to find help, see if we can find some food.”

shoes curtained-off section O’Hare International Airport asylum-seekers migrant shelter

A pair of shoes peeks under a blocked-off section of O’Hare Airport. Recently arrived migrants complain of poor care at the airport.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for 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.

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