Shuttered Woodlawn elementary school to house newly arrived asylum seekers

Chicago officials plan to repurpose a former elementary school on the city’s South Side into a temporary shelter for newly arrived immigrants.

But the move could be met with protests in Woodlawn if city officials don’t hold more community forums about the shelter, said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, whose 20th Ward includes the property.

"The community plans to protest, and I plan to stand with them," Taylor said late Thursday.

The city confirmed Thursday that the building that once housed the James Wadsworth Elementary School, located at 6420 S. University Ave., will be converted into a temporary shelter for newly arrived immigrants seeking asylum. The school, located in Woodlawn, had been shuttered and at one point also housed a charter school.


For months, the city has received hundreds of migrants sent from the southern U.S. border on chartered buses from Texas to northern cities including Chicago.

"Since the first bus arrived to Chicago, we saw an influx in the demand for resources as we received multiple buses per day. However, over time, the bus arrivals decreased and the need for housing was not as demanding as we it had once been. Over the last four months, things have evolved," according to a statement from the city.

The city’s announcement comes a day after a public meeting was hosted at the Harris Park Field House. Residents were upset the community forum was held amid the holiday season when many were unavailable, Taylor said.

The shelter could house about 250 individuals and it could open as soon as next week, though residents are pressing for city officials to hold off on opening the shelter to allow for more community input, she said.

Taylor said there are concerns about safety for Woodlawn residents, and also for the immigrants who would be living in an area without many support organizations that could meet their needs. She noted she had discussions with Latino organizations in Back of the Yards to identify locations that would place the asylum seekers closer to immigrant-serving organizations, but city officials told her the suggested locations didn’t work.

"To put them in my part of the ward that doesn’t have that support for them, it doesn’t make sense," Taylor said.

To Taylor, it feels like the city is "checking off the box" in selecting a location to house the immigrants rather than thoroughly vetting a location.

"It’s a big mess, and if we don’t do this the right way, we are doing more harm to the community on both sides," Taylor said. "Are we really taking care of them?"

Community members in the South Side community noted that they are already struggling with gentrification and unhoused individuals in their community, she said.

"They didn’t go about this the right way," she said. "Did they ask Lincoln Park? Did they ask Hyde Park?"

Since late August, 3,854 asylum seekers have arrived from Texas to Chicago in chartered buses sent by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who also sent asylum seekers to other Democrat-led cities.

City and state officials are also providing services for an additional 1,400 individuals seeking asylum who have arrived to the area in recent months, according to the city.

Those seeking asylum have also been temporarily housed for months in other makeshift shelters along with hotel rooms in Chicago and suburban Cook County.

One resident — Luis Cardona, 57, who lives near the Woodlawn property — said Thursday he felt "blindsided" by the decision to repurpose it, adding that he didn’t know about this week’s community meeting.

Months ago he noticed people working on the site and making changes to a fence. In recent weeks, he’s seen trucks coming in and around the property.

"That’s not right, not telling the residents that live here, that pay their taxes, nothing that’s going on," Cardona said.

In October, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office told Block Club Chicago that it had "no plans" to use the building as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers.

Cardona said he would have liked more information and transparency about the shelter. He said he also has safety concerns about it.

"I say we should all get together a petition to have it stopped," he said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.