Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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City Council indicates support for migrant shelter — but not downtown

Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern
A two-story building at 1020 Church St. in downtown Evanston could house up to 65 migrants under a new city proposal.

Responding to a regional call for migrant housing, City Council signaled it would support opening a home for asylum-seekers in Evanston — but also appeared hesitant toward renovating a vacant downtown office building into a temporary shelter.

City staff revealed a proposal last week to use the two-story building at 1020 Church St. as a shelter for up to 65 migrants. According to the plan, Evanston would apply for Cook County grant funding to cover the projected $2 million annual operating cost. 

Still, many details remain unclear about how the city would pay for the renovation and whether it would operate indefinitely.

Some councilmembers said they opposed the proposed site and needed more details before they could give the city the go-ahead. Policy Coordinator Alison Leipsiger said the city would likely not apply for the grant money unless it had homed in on a site. 

The grant application does not require council approval, Mayor Daniel Biss told The Daily. Even so, the prospect of housing dozens of migrants in downtown Evanston drew apprehension but not outright rejection.

“We have to have a plan,” Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) said. “I don’t want to rush into receiving money, not having a well thought-out plan.”

More than 38,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since 2022, but as the city clamped down on unscheduled drop-offs, many buses turned toward suburban train stations. In recent weeks, buses have dropped off hundreds of migrants at the Wilmette Metra station who then take the train to an intake zone in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday.

No drop-offs have been reported in Evanston. But only one other city, west suburban Oak Park, has applied for a slice of the $20 million county fund. As the April 19 application deadline draws near, Evanston could become only the second suburb to seek aid in establishing a shelter.

The county allocated the $20 million for local governments to cover only “new arrivals.” These migrants, mostly asylum-seekers leaving Venezuela, have crossed the southern border illegally since August 2022 and lack legal status aside from parole. Many migrants await asylum hearings.

Evanston officials visited the Church Street site last week, according to the city proposal. While the building could house up to 65 migrants, it would require installing fire sprinklers and various interior upgrades. A nonprofit like Connections for the Homeless could operate the shelter for about $2 million a year, but the proposal did not say how much the renovation would cost. 

City staff also proposed the soon-to-be-dormant Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center as a shelter, but it would also need extensive repairs.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said putting a shelter beside the Northlight Theatre “would be (like) putting a blanket” over downtown revitalization efforts. With an end to the migrant crisis nowhere in sight, the city’s plan should be carefully planned out, he added.

Harris and Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) also referenced concerns about the city’s capacity to handle migrants on top of a “housing crisis” for longtime residents. Residents’ reactions during public comment ranged from strong support to criticism over what Carlis Sutton called a “slap in the face” to taxpayers.

Biss said the shelters need not be permanent given the immediate need for housing. He said the city did not yet need to determine long-term funding and staff allocation before looking for a temporary solution.

“The emergency that is presenting itself to us right now doesn’t really give us the luxury to just wait until the day when the perfect opportunity presents itself,” he said.

Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) said that he was in favor of exploring a grant application and often tells constituents Evanston is not doing more for migrants because the city already struggles to build affordable housing for residents. 

City Council postponed all other agenda items to its April 29 meeting because it lacked a quorum. Still, Biss wanted clarity from the councilmembers who attended Monday’s meeting on whether staff should keep exploring the Church Street site or turn their attention elsewhere.

“I would just keep everything you’ve been doing on the table and pursue responses to those questions,” Burns said. 

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