Representatives from the Mayor’s Office said the city will revisit its decision to shelter 150 to 200 migrants at Amundsen Park after a heated community meeting Tuesday night.
More than 400 Austin residents flocked to Amundsen Park’s gymnasium to strongly oppose the city’s decision to turn the park’s fieldhouse into a migrant shelter. City and Chicago Park District officials attended the meeting to present the city’s plans, but were halted from sharing after several interruptions by residents who opposed the decision during the raucous meeting.
“Seniors need their parks,” “What about the kids?” and “You work for us” were some of the words loudly echoed by dozens of residents at the start of the meeting.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), who called the meeting, said he strongly opposed the city’s decision. He urged residents to speak up against a decision that by all accounts was made without his or the community’s input.
“I strongly objected to it and I object to it now…” he said, adding his office was first informed by the Mayor’s Office Sept. 29 that a housing decision had been made. Despite his objections, the city remained firm in its plans to turn the park into a shelter, he said.
“We cannot take resources from the Black community,” he said to applause. Amundsen Park serves seniors, children and youth who rely on the park district’s programming, he said.
“We have been for months telling our youth not to go downtown, not to gather, not to commit crimes downtown,” he said, adding the city has promised to provide youth with safe spaces in their communities, such as the park’s program.
Housing migrants at the shelter “specifically flies in the face of that” and takes “a very valuable resource” from them, he said.
At least four single mothers said their children rely on the park’s after-school programs to keep them safe while they go to work.
About a dozen neighbors fiercely spoke up against the plan during time set for public comments. Residents questioned why the community was not involved before the city made a decision.
Linda Johnson, who lives a block away from the park and attends its senior programs, said the city has no right to decide without bringing the community to the table.
Others questioned why the city is taking away available resources for children and seniors in a historically underserved community.
Residents also cited public safety concerns, echoing Taliaferro’s concerns.
Vernita Miller, an Austin resident and single-mother said she housing migrants at the park puts children and neighbors’ safety at risk.
“We don’t know who they are,” she said. Miller’s son, Lorenzo Doke III is a young football player for the Windy City Dolphins. He has practiced football and basketball at Amundsen Park for nearly 8 years.
At the meeting, he told city officials their decision to halt the park’s programming by turning into a shelter is “messing up” the youth’s future.
“This field is our future,” Doke III said.
A few residents slammed Mayor Brandon Johnson for failing the community that supported him, questioning why he was not present.
Not a single resident who spoke at the meeting expressed their support for turning the park facilities into a shelter.
In an unorthodox move, the city’s Chief Operating Officer John Roberson said city representatives would take the community’s feedback to the Mayor’s Office and make a decision. Roberson’s statement came after several failed attempts from city and park district officials to present the city’s plans.
Amundsen Park was one of 200 locations the city evaluated to shelter migrants, he said. After the meeting, city officials told residents the North Austin park was chosen because it has plumbing, bathrooms and other facilities required for a shelter. If turned into a shelter, migrants would sleep at the gymnasium and use another room in the fieldhouse for services. Park programs and after-school activities would be relocated to nearby parks and public schools, although city officials did not provide additional details to this publication. Chicago Park District officials referred questions to their communications department.
Earlier in the meeting, Beatriz Ponce de Leon, Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights tried to explain how the park facilities would be used to house migrants amid several disruptions.
Several residents decried city officials, saying they were trying to use the “us vs. them” narrative, when the community is not actually against migrants. They said they are simply against turning the community’s parks into shelters.
Since August 2022, more than 17,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from South American have arrived in the city in 300 buses, as more migrants continue to arrive, Robinson said.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” the Mayor’s Office chief operating officer said.
Amid a surge of migrants at the southern border, on Sept. 23 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his administration will deploy additional buses to transport migrants to welcoming cities, including Chicago. So far, Texas has bused 8,700 migrants to Chicago, according to Abbott’s office.
This increase has further strained the city’s capacity and resources allocated for new arrivals. There are about 10,000 migrants in 23 city shelters, Robinson said.