Volunteers and local organizations are responding to the needs of asylum-seekers sheltering in police stations in the Austin neighborhood, as reported by this publication last week. In the last two weeks, a group comprised of volunteers and representatives of local organizations and social services providers sat together in two meetings convened by BUILD Chicago to evaluate the situation and try to organize a coordinated response. 

The goal of the many groups and individuals is to move from simply providing for immediate needs for food and shelter, and to begin building an infrastructure to create ongoing services to meet the complex and ongoing needs of the asylum-seekers. 

Among the attendees at the meetings are police leaders from the Chicago Police Department’s 15th and 25th districts, representatives from Family Focus, a nonprofit organization that runs several Illinois Welcoming Centers in partnership with the Illinois Department of Human Services, BUILD Chicago leaders, Beyond Hunger representatives, Austin Coming Together representatives and members of the volunteer group known as the Police Station Response Team.  

“We don’t have an infrastructure, we have a WhatsApp chat,” said Celine Woznica and Kate Nolan, volunteers for the Police Station Response Team. The “room for inequity is enormous,” they said. 

The situation these organizations and volunteers are responding to is fluid and complex, as it is unknown how long the city of Chicago will continue to use police stations to shelter incoming asylum-seekers, mostly from Venezuela, but also from other Latin American countries. Volunteers and local leaders also don’t know how many more asylum-seekers will arrive in Chicago or for how long large groups of asylum-seekers bused from states like Texas will continue to arrive.  

In addition, changes in federal immigration policies may impact the number of migrants and asylum-seekers who arrive in the U.S. and consequently, in Chicago. For example, after the COVID-19-related directive known as Title 42 expired on May 11, the country expected an increase in people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but in the first two days after it expired, U.S. border patrol agents saw a 50% drop in the number of migrants crossing the border, as reported by the news outlet Reuters.  

Anna Cameron Gomberg, one of the organizers of the Police Station Response Team for the 15th district, said the volunteer-led group started when she found out asylum-seekers were sheltering at the 15th  District police station, 5701 W. Madison St., without access to social services at the beginning of May.  

The group provides three to four hot meals a day to asylum-seekers at the police stations, donates clothing, shoes, personal items, phone and SIM cards, blankets, towels and other items to asylum-seekers. When they can, they provide information or transportation, help connect individuals to services they need and partner with local organizations. They also collect information on the current needs of asylum-seekers at the police station, so they can respond as needed.  

“We hope to be creating the start of an infrastructure that should have been there,” Gomberg and other volunteers told this publication.  

Currently, this response is being organized out of the volunteer group’s WhatsApp chat, handwritten lists of needed items pulled together by volunteers at police stations, Excel files, food made in volunteers’ kitchens or donated by local restaurants and personal items and clothing being collected by volunteers.  

The need is continuous as police stations continue to be used as shelters as the city’s shelters and respite centers are at capacity, though police stations do not have the infrastructure to serve as shelters. They do not have proper sleeping facilities, showers or kitchens that can be used to serve asylum-seekers. Also, when a group or individual leaves the police station, other asylum-seekers arrive, creating a continuous need for resources.  

As a result, the response continues to evolve and changes from week to week. For example, during the week of May 22, the Kinfolk CoLab, an Oak Park-based space for BIPOC led groups, offered to store clothing and other items at their location so volunteers from the Police Station Response Team could sort and organize collected items before distributing them at the 15th District police station. After volunteers and representatives from local organizations held their first meeting on May 25, BUILD Chicago opened the doors of its Austin campus so asylum-seekers in the 15th and 25th districts can use their showers and laundry facilities at coordinated times and dates throughout the week. Some of the items collected by volunteers and others obtained by BUILD Chicago are also now distributed to asylum-seekers at BUILD Chicago, not only the police station. 

As the asylum-seekers come to BUILD Chicago, 5100 W. Harrison St., organizers and volunteers wish to be able to address more of their needs, including access to wraparound services. Last week, BUILD Chicago’s staff started connecting with asylum-seekers and connected a pregnant woman to a healthcare provider while she was on-site, Jessica Carrillo, director of Clinical and Community Wellness Programs at BUILD, said.  

The local nonprofit Family Focus could bring case management services, like the ones provided at its locations that serve as Illinois Welcoming Centers to a centralized location in Austin. That way, it would be easier for asylum-seekers to get assistance and navigate services provided by different organizations, each with their own system.   

“We need to organize, right now we’re just responding,” Mariana Osoria, senior vice president of partnerships and engagement at Family Focus, said.   

Some of these services include specialized immigration counseling and translation services, application to eligible benefits like rent assistance, health care, mental health, early childhood services, job placement services, education and English classes, among many other needs.  

Yet, as they continue to meet, a prevalent concern is the need for infrastructure and a system that ensures an equitable distribution of resources and wraparound services.  

“The priority is finding permanent housing and getting them outside of police stations,” said Adam Alonso, CEO of BUILD.  

Meeting attendees discussed options to coordinate ways for asylum-seekers to find housing in the area and, if possible, apply for rental assistance, though individuals are not required to stay in Austin. Yet, this step could help asylum-seekers as they navigate their individual immigration processes.  

Another concern is their access to continuous wraparound services, especially if they leave the police stations after they find housing or other shelters.  

“It’s important for the community to show up for Venezuelan brothers and sisters,” said Crystal Gardner, Austin community activist and volunteer for the Police Station Response Team at the first meeting. She added it is a priority to ensure there is an equitable distribution of resources among all asylum-seekers in the Austin area, though there currently is no formal infrastructure to do so. 

Volunteers and local organization leaders continue to work together to respond to the ongoing challenges and find long-term solutions, while searching for solutions from other social services providers, elected officials from the city, state and surrounding villages, and other nonprofit leaders. The Chicago Police and the mayor’s press office did not respond to our requests for comment as of this publication’s deadline.