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Chicago migrant crisis: Scenes of desperation inside police stations

A new surge of migrant arrivals in Chicago is quickly outpacing the city's shelter capacity.
Chicago migrant crisis: Scenes of desperation inside police stations
Posted at 12:45 PM, Aug 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-25 12:48:50-04

Surreal images that have become the norm in Chicago: Over 1,200 migrants, including toddlers, sleeping inside and outside police stations while waiting for shelter space.

At one police station on the city's Southwest side, volunteer Erika Villegas has been serving breakfast and checking in with the migrants daily for the past four months.

She tells Scripps News that conditions inside police stations citywide are getting worse. But she credits volunteers for keeping everyone safe.

"This has been kind of our secondary job — my secondary job — since April, and it hasn't stopped. It hasn't gotten any better," said Villegas, who's a lead coordinator for the Chicago Police Station Response Team, a grassroots network of volunteers.

SEE MORE: Chicago declares state of emergency over migrant arrivals

Villegas says the city serves migrants staying at police stations one meal a day. But she argues that it's volunteers who ensure that individuals "are safe, fed and their basic needs are met."

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said last month that "decompressing" the police stations is a top priority. But as arrivals soar, the city appears unable to keep up.

In a statement, officials tell Scripps News that the city remains committed to emptying police stations and moving people into shelters to put them "on a path to resettlement and self-sufficiency."

Some police officers – who didn't want to appear on camera – tell us conditions are not ideal, but it doesn't impact their job too much.

But for the leader of the Chicago police union, the situation is unacceptable.

"This is not what the police are supposed to be doing. It is not what police stations were meant for," said John Catanzara, the president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police.

SEE MORE: Chicago church helping migrants in need of shelter, food, community

Once space opens up at any of the city's 15 shelters, migrants could be transferred there. But as one Venezuelan woman tells us, the process can take months.

"There are small children here. And there are people who have been here for two months. I've been here for one month myself," said Katerin Martin, who's been sheltering inside the city's seventh district police station with her son and husband.

The city of Chicago doesn't allow cameras inside shelters, so we are unable to see whether the conditions there are better than inside police stations.

But one thing is clear: The growing crisis is taking a toll on the city's finances.

Chicago has already spent over $110 million to care for the 13,000 migrants who have been bused there from Texas and elsewhere over the past 12 months.

And officials admit that those figures could represent just the tip of the iceberg.

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