Mayor Johnson calls on state to build migrant shelters outside Chicago

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Mayor Brandon Johnson’s ongoing calls for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to build more migrant shelters took a new turn Wednesday as he indicated additional sites should be located outside Chicago, even with state funding.

Speaking to reporters after presiding over the City Council meeting, the mayor did not directly answer questions about the fate of the next round of migrants whose 60-day deadline to vacate city-run shelters arrives Feb. 1, with harsh winter weather expected to remain.

Instead, he pivoted to place the onus on the state to construct more such sites — and pushed for them to be built elsewhere.

“What the state committed to doing back in November, that process has not moved as quickly as this (60-day) policy will hold,” Johnson said. “This policy was really attached to a larger operation that included … 2,200 beds. That’s what the state of Illinois committed to doing.”

Pritzker on Monday said the Johnson administration had not told the state “where they would like us to put our resources” to build new shelters, “so we can’t help if they don’t identify those locations.”

Johnson countered Wednesday that “the state has received a number of locations that they can build a shelter at.” He did not elaborate. But city officials said they have recommended to Pritzker’s administration potential sites outside Chicago, sometimes with specific buildings in mind, a notion the governor’s office disputes.

“And you know, again, just keep in mind that the state of Illinois can build a shelter anywhere in the state of Illinois. So, the state does not have to build a shelter in Chicago,” he said.

For the Pritzker administration, though, the main focus is the city.

“The vast majority of the infrastructure for this mission is based in the city because that’s where all the investment has been made,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said after Johnson’s Wednesday remarks.

In the fall, Pritzker announced the state would fund a 200-bed shelter at a former CVS in Little Village — which has since opened — as well as a 2,000-bed winterized base camp in Brighton Park. The latter, backed by $65 million in state funding, was scuttled after Pritzker’s administration objected to the former industrial site, citing concerns over environmental health hazards.

Since then, that money has languished as the governor has expressed frustration with Chicago’s handling of the migrant crisis, saying he was “deeply concerned” about Johnson’s plan to hold off on opening new shelters.

Johnson announced a 60-day shelter limit policy in November, but he delayed enforcing it ahead of the first eviction date on Jan. 22 as heavy snowfall and low wind chills pummeled the city. A second extension was announced until Feb. 1, but temperatures are again expected to dip below freezing then.

The threat of a more extreme Chicago winter has added a new wrench in the city’s migrant response as resources are fast dwindling for the migrants, the first of whom were bused north by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in August 2022 as a protest of liberal cities who support open immigration policies.

Since then, the total number of migrants who have arrived in Chicago has surpassed 34,000, and the $150 million Johnson appropriated in his 2024 budget for their care may run out before the end of this year.

The mayor was mum Wednesday on how many migrants would be affected by the Feb. 1 eviction date they face to leave city-run shelters. As of last week, 710 of them have gotten extensions to the 60-day shelter limit, but that number may have grown as notices come on a rolling basis.

Johnson on Wednesday applauded that 1,100 migrants did find their own housing since the 60-day policy was announced in November, but it is unknown how many of them were in the batch of 710 who got extensions and how many were required to exit at later dates.

The city-run migrant shelter system has been at capacity for months, with 28 buildings currently housing 14,200 individuals. In total, more than 8,000 shelter eviction notices have gone out.

Johnson stood by the policy Wednesday despite the need to delay it twice already, though he acknowledged he is open to reevaluating: “We’re going to continue to review. This is an evolving crisis.”

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.