Migrants go without showers, dig for food in trash at city’s ‘landing zone’ as they wait for shelter

Hundreds of migrants who recently arrived in Chicago have been staying in warming buses provided by the city and they haven’t taken a shower for days.

Many are hungry and sick with colds. Each night, they climb into eight warming buses to sleep at the Office of Emergency Management’s “landing zone” in the West Loop. The number of migrants has climbed to 324.

Wednesday morning, some could be seen tossing a football and running to stay warm. Others blew on their hands for warmth and scrounged for food.

“If you’re not given food, you go to extreme measures. You look for food in the trash,” said Robinson Mendez, 30, from Valencia, Venezuela.

He pointed at a group of migrants who he said had found three boxes of sandwiches in the trash and were hurriedly stuffing bread and meat in their mouths. They wore matching navy USA soccer jackets and beanies. He said they — like him — had no support in the United States.

With 27 designated shelter buildings at capacity and more migrants arriving every day, numbers have overflowed to buses in the city’s “landing zone,” a parking lot run by OEMC officials. Migrants began being placed at the loading zone at the end of December after the city emptied police stations that had been housing migrants waiting for space indoors.

But experts and advocates question whether these buses even qualify as humane shelters as defined by international standards.

Elliott Young, a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in transnational migration, refugees and asylum-seeking populations said he is unsure that warming buses qualify as viable shelter spaces as defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Though being in warming buses is better than being out on the street, it is incumbent on the city of Chicago to find more dignified living spaces,” Young said.

Annie Gomberg, a volunteer who used to provide resources to migrants staying at the Austin District (15th) police station, drove by the parking lot in the West Loop Sunday and said migrants told her they’d been living on the buses for days, without adequate nutrition and the ability to shower.

She called ShowerUp, an organization that provides mobile shower facilities to people living outside.

Gomberg said she organized the shower event through contacts with OEMC and Favorite Staffing, the city’s biggest contractor to respond to the growing numbers of migrants bused up from southern border states. ShowerUp planned to come Wednesday.

But when the organization arrived with their mobile shower unit, OEMC officials at the landing zone said they didn’t have a place to plug it in or a water hookup. They left, and migrants — many of whom were still in the gray sweatpants and T-shirts they received at detention centers in Texas — couldn’t take hot showers.

Gomberg said migrants at the loading zone are desperate, running for the packets of oatmeal and Nutri-Grain bars that volunteers pass out. Until Wednesday, Gomberg said they were being given one meal a day.

A line of blue portable toilets functions as bathrooms for hundreds of people. But migrants don’t have running water, and they told the Tribune Wednesday they still hadn’t been fed enough.

They spend all day sitting on the buses to stay warm and all night sleeping sitting up.

According to a statement from OEMC spokesperson Mary May, the city received no coordination from volunteer groups about the plan to get people showered.

“Personnel from Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications were unaware of this and without advance notice were not able to make the appropriate arrangements to accommodate them. This includes access to the water hookup for the mobile shower trailer that can only be turned on with advance notice, it’s not a simple procedure,” said May in a statement.

Last fall, Chicago was just starting to receive buses of migrants — mostly Venezuelan — from Texas, sent by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to publicly challenge the city’s sanctuary promises. Sixteen months later, the buses have not stopped. The city has now received over 30,000 asylum-seekers, and it has become increasingly clear that most have no ties in Chicago, and no idea how or where to begin their new lives here.

Volunteers helping migrants are concerned about living conditions at the landing zone. They are asking for more communication from city officials.

“Everybody here is kind of warehoused up,” said Gomberg. “They don’t know what’s happening and they don’t know what’s really going on. We’re going on a week of these folks not having access to hygiene.”

Wednesday morning, Venezuelans from subtropical climates shivered uncontrollably at the landing zone. Mothers got off the buses carrying children on their hips, wrapped up in donated blankets.

Yaqueisis Dominguez, 21, from Maracay, Venezuela said she had barely slept the night before. She held a Styrofoam cup of broth. Her curly haired 3-year-old son Matillas Bello tugged at the bottom of her shirt. He wore donated snowsuit overalls.

“People are sick with fevers. It’s the cold,” she said.

The state last week announced it would be setting up an intake center for newly arriving migrants at the city’s bus landing zone, saying that six heated tents would be open at the site “in the coming weeks.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday sidestepped a question about how long it would take to finish setting up the tents as an alternative to the CTA buses that are being used to shelter migrants at the site.

“We work every day with the city of Chicago as they identify locations that we can set up shelters,” Pritzker said.

In a news release later Wednesday, the administration said the intake center “is not intended to provide shelter.”

“It is designed to help individuals upon their arrival at the landing zone to receive expanded services and support in a more streamlined process and to unite them with their friends and family and/or help them advance to other destinations to avoid unnecessary admission into shelters,” the Illinois Department of Human Services said in a news release.

The crunch to find housing for migrants follows the death of a 5-year-old migrant boy on Dec. 17 who had been staying inside a warehouse on the Lower West Side housing several thousand migrants.

Jean Carlos “Jeremías” Martinez Rivero died unexpectedly after falling ill, which sparked discussion from advocates and medical specialists about whether migrants in shelters are being provided with sufficient health care support.

Michael Kurz, professor and section chief of emergency medicine at University of Chicago said the city is doing everything it can to respond to migrants’ needs.

“We are trying very hard to meet their needs,” he said. “But we don’t have the infrastructure built to do that.”

Claudia Strong, a volunteer who came to the landing zone Wednesday morning to help with the ShowerUp plan, said she has been in close contact with the boy’s family, and has heard from them that they are being moved from a hotel back into the shelter system, which worries her. She said they’ve been moved to three places in the past three weeks.

“They’re a broken family. They’re numb. They don’t know how to move forward, and to put them back into the city’s shelters is not right,” Strong said.

Jean Carlos was described as “bright and joyful” in a GoFundMe set up by Strong to raise money for the boy’s family to have enough money for at least a year of stable housing.

Strong stood on a corner across the street from the landing zone, watching mothers push children in strollers.

“I can’t believe kids are still here. Get them out of here,” she said.

Jessica Darrow, professor at University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, said in coping with the loss of their son, it is important for Jean Carlos’ family to know they have a choice of where to live.

Darrow said many advocates have called for migrants to not be left out in the cold, but she thinks Jean Carlos’ death provides a new sense of immediacy for attention to migrants’ mental health needs while living in situations with no privacy.

“We are leaving (migrants) incredibly exposed to things that they can’t control. So we can expect that their mental health, their ability to be resilient, will be depleted,” she said.

Also Wednesday, the state opened a long-discussed shelter at a former CVS store in the Little Village neighborhood.

That shelter, which will be funded by the state and operated by controversial contractor GardaWorld Federal Services on behalf of the city, is intended to house more than 200 people, including families with young children, some who have been staying at a hotel paid for by the state since late December.

Pritzker said his administration also continues to work with the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago on potential sites for additional shelters.

At the landing zone, Angelo Traviezo, 23, told the Tribune it had taken him one year to make it all the way to the United States from the central western state of Maracay, Venezuela. He said his country used to be a beautiful destination for tourism before it fell into economic downturn, and that the freezing Chicago air and lack of food made him feel weak.

“The people on the street help us more than the city. They give us clothes, jackets,” he said.

He said didn’t expect to spend his first week in Chicago digging through the trash to find breakfast.