As temperatures fall in Chicago, number of sick children sleeping outside of police stations increases, migrant advocates say

CHICAGO — Three-year-old José was having trouble breathing as he writhed on the cold, wet mattress inside his family’s tent near the River North police station.

It had snowed off and on all day, and ice coated the blue tarp that hung over tents lining North Larrabee Street. The moisture seeped up through the inflatable mattress.

“Duele, Duele. It hurts, it hurts,” he cried out shaking as his parents, José Urribarri, 48, and his wife Linda Bello, 28, wrapped him in multiple blankets and squeezed his little body between them.

The cold Tuesday evening brought the toddler to new levels of desperation, and his parents rushed him by foot to a nearby health clinic.

As temperatures plummeted this week, migrants interviewed by the Tribune recounted the number of children sheltering at Chicago’s police stations who needed medical care, perhaps signaling an ominous preview of what’s to come as winter looms and thousands of people shelter in and around the stations.

Over 20,000 migrants have come to Chicago in the past 14 months, and medical clinics and volunteers are stepping up to support the overflow camped outside at police stations. But migrants are freezing in the dropping temperatures and don’t know where to turn for additional help — especially for the kids who are sleeping outside.

There are almost 2,800 migrants waiting for shelter placement in police districts around the city, as buses arrive nearly every day. Experts are worried if migrants even know to call 911 in an emergency.

Many hospitals across the city reached by the Tribune said they do not track patients’ immigration status, so officials could not say whether there was an uptick in emergency room visits from migrants. But Charles Jolie, a spokesman for Rush University Medical Center, said he’d been told that there were more visits this week, likely from the migrant population.

“I know we’ve seen a concerning rise in cases associated with colder weather,” he said. “I’m told upper respiratory issues are particularly concerning and providers in the field have had to send several kids to hospitals because of trouble breathing. They are, of course, concerned that colder weather will make the situation worse.”

Rush specialists have provided health care services to migrants housed at police stations through a project called Rush Center to Transform Health and Housing. Terry Gallagher, nursing director for the program, said they hold a clinic from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. one day a week at a police station in need.

“We generally call about two ambulances each time we go out,” she said. “I think most of the ambulance calls are coming in when medical staff is not there.”

Gallagher said her providers’ equipment froze at Monday’s clinic. Her team is organizing an emergency coat drive and will hand out tinfoil blankets, telling migrants to line the inside of their tents.

“If a parent uses a coat to wrap up their child — you know, that’s usually what happens — then our concern is we also want the adult to be able to take care of themselves and stay healthy,” said Gallagher. “I’ve seen parents who will do anything for (their) children.”

Sara Izquierdo, co-founder and director of the Mobile Migrant Health Team, a group of medical students that goes to police stations to provide medical care, said some volunteers who live around the districts have taken migrants into their homes. But she said they have limited communication with the city.

”We bought 300 Mylar blankets recently, which is basically all that we have in our power to do,” said Jenny Wang, a second-year resident at University of Illinois at Chicago who is part of the Mobile Migrant Health Team.

Minal Giri, chair of the Immigrant Child Health Initiative at the Illinois Chapter at the American Academy of Pediatrics, said many migrant children living at police stations may be underweight from their challenging journeys here, trudging through jungles and fleeing violence, leaving them even more vulnerable to illnesses.

“And when they’re living in those crowded situations, food insecurity is still an issue. That all affects your immunity and your body’s ability to fight infection,” Giri said.

Indeed, the pompom on José's donated beanie is wider than his arms; he rolls up his baggy jeans to run around and play.

Two weeks ago, José's parents asked police officers to call an ambulance for him. José was wheezing and coughing uncontrollably, and was told by doctors he had bronchitis. Urribarri said he didn’t have money to buy his son medicine after they returned to the station.

Urribarri had been trying to find work, but wasn’t having luck. He was a marine mechanic in their home city of Punto Fijo, in the northern Falcón state of Venezuela, until the program closed as a result of the country’s failing economy. The family of four, which includes their daughter, Luiscarlis, 8, left their country July 16.

“La pobreza en las calles se ve en Venezuela. Las personas que han trabajado toda la vida. You can see the poverty in the streets in Venezuela. People who have worked all their lives,” he said. “Vinimos para trabajar. We came here to work.”

They spent months traversing dangerous migration routes and arrived in Laredo, Texas, in early October, where a shelter was giving out free bus tickets to cities in the United States. They were given the option to go to New York or Chicago, and chose to come where they heard there were more resources.

“He leído mucho sobre Chicago. Es la mejor ciudad del año 2017 de Forbes. I’ve read a lot about Chicago. It’s the best city of 2017 according to Forbes,” said Urribarri.

The large tent encampment where they arrived is next to Target and kitty-corner to a fire station. Urribarri said fire trucks leave at all hours with their sirens blazing. Migrants use the Target bathroom during the day when the police station is closed for cleaning.

They wouldn’t have tents if volunteers hadn’t brought them, migrants said. Volunteers bring them food, but at irregular hours.

Irregularity is José's normal. The 3-year-old crossed over multiple countries to make it to the United States and was put on the first bus his parents could find. His new reality is a sidewalk for a playground, and shivers in a tent throughout the night.

“With colder weather upon us, we are at an increasingly critical point in this humanitarian response. To protect new arrivals and unhoused Chicagoans from the impact of falling temperatures, the city is collaborating with external partners, volunteers, and mutual aid groups to provide blankets, coats, and other much-needed items,” said Mary May, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management and Communication, in a statement.

When José had been feeling healthy, he zoomed around on a strider bike. Sometimes he’d dart off into the street, and his mom would use his second name to reprimand him.

“¡José Leonardo!” she’d say.

Over the past two weeks, José was battling a strong fever, said Bello. It would often pick up during the day, and he would sleep on a blanket on the ground by the divvy bike station. He developed scabs all over his body up to his fingertips.

“Cuando tiene fiebre, no se para de la cama. When he has a fever, he doesn’t get out of bed,” she said.

Tuesday brought intense wind and snow, and José screamed and cried for most of the night. Migrants staying at the station in tents spent much of the early morning walking around to try to stay warm. They were looking for hot tea, and many said they couldn’t sleep.

Alexander Castillo, 28, from Venezuela, emerged from his tent at 8:30 a.m. the following morning asking for a cup of coffee or tea to wrap his hands around. His eyelashes were wet from frost.

He told the Tribune José's skin had been purple, and that the family left to find urgent help earlier that morning.

They walked to Near North Health nearby, where José was diagnosed with chickenpox and given instructions in English to isolate himself and go to a warmer place.

Dr. Dan Vicencio, interim chief medical officer at Near North Health, has been treating immigrant populations in the city for 25 years, but said the Venezuelan migrants arriving here on buses and planes don’t have the community that other groups of immigrants in the city do or have had.

Near North Health has opened its doors to asylum seekers over the past few months with 60 to 70 migrant patients on any given day. The migrants hear about the clinic mostly by word of mouth, he said. Many come in wanting general checkups — and often they just want affirmation that they will be OK.

“I don’t believe they have an emergency system back in Venezuela that is comparable,” Vicencio said. “They just know when the child is sick, and it’s in the middle of the night, the only thing that is open is the emergency room.”

Urribarri said by the time they got to Near North, they were so desperate they neglected to ask about the lower half of José's eye, which was bloodshot.

“I was so worried about him, I forgot to ask,” Urribarri said.

Urribarri and Bello walked back to the station with the medical papers. They had no one in Chicago to call, and prepared themselves for another cold night.

“Hay muchas familias, como nosotros, también en la espera. There are many families, like us, also waiting,” said Bello, watching her young son cruise up and down on the strider, dwarfed by the tent encampment that rose up on either side of him.

On Thursday afternoon, the family received news that they were being transferred to the Inn of Chicago.

A new family with children was put in their vacant tent that same day.