The former Wadsworth Elementary School building, 6420 S. University Ave.

Almost three months after the city opened a temporary shelter for migrants at the repurposed Wadsworth Elementary School, 6420 S. University Ave., the shelter’s capacity has doubled. 

At a virtual community meeting with city officials on Wednesday, April 26, Woodlawn residents were told the building’s current population stands at 497 people — up from the 250 people initially proposed by the city at the beginning of the year. It’s also double the population of the shelter from the previous month. 

According to Danny Castañeda, a representative of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services’ (DFSS) homeless services division, the shelter currently has a capacity limit of about 500 people. “We have approximately three beds available for new placements,” Castañeda said. 

The city moved about 100 people into Wadsworth in early February as part of its larger network of shelters — in repurposed schools, libraries and park field houses — created to meet a growing crisis of unhoused migrants. 

Since August, more than 7,400 refugees and asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago, with more than 100 new people requesting shelter every day, according to DFSS Commissioner Brandi Knazzie. With a $53 million shortfall and no additional federal funds coming in, the city is running out of resources, staffing and shelter space to house new arrivals.

The February move into Wadsworth stoked frustration in the neighborhood, as residents had for months lambasted city officials for moving ahead with the shelter without sufficient community input. City officials have since apologized to Woodlawn residents and committed to more transparency around its shelter plans. 

But on Wednesday, neighbors again complained of a lack of transparency, having learned at the meeting the city had doubled the shelter’s population.

“This is the first time that we’ve been given a definitive number as to capacity. So can we as residents, are we guaranteed that this is the max?” asked Stephanie Crockett-Mclean.

According to Lori Lypson, the mayor’s Deputy Mayor of Infrastructure and Services, there is no set capacity-limit for the shelter. 

“Obviously the school will allow for more people,” Lypson said. “We can’t predict the future, so I don’t want to give a definite answer on the capacity, but right now that’s the number we’re trying to stay with.”

Officials did not address whether unhoused Woodlawn residents would be able to seek shelter at Wadsworth, as previously stated, saying only that  Chicagoans in need of shelter can call 311 to make a shelter request.

The mayor’s office did not respond to the Herald’s inquiry about this.

New arrivals are offered transportation to an initial health assessment and screening at Cook County Health, in addition to any necessary follow-up appointments, according to Castañeda. Additionally, Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit, is also providing non-emergency care such as Covid-19 testing and vaccinations. More than 250 Wadsworth residents have also received a CityKey card, a government-issued ID available to all Chicagoans, which can be used as a Chicago Public Library card, a Chicago Transit Authority Ventra card and a prescription drug discount card.  

Jesus Del Toro, project manager for the mayor’s Office of New Americans, said the department is working to move Wadsworth residents out of the shelter and has begun giving people “30-day notices” ahead of exit dates. He added that residents who have been at the shelter the longest will receive notices first.

The mayor’s office did not respond to the Herald’s inquiry as to whether it would remove shelter inhabitants who do not have other housing accommodations arranged.

Aaron Johnson from the Department of Housing (DOH) said they are working with the state on “a longer-term resettlement plan for shelter residents,” but did not give specifics. Johnson noted “affordable housing options in the area,” such as the under-construction Park Station Lofts at the corner of 63rd Street and Blackstone Avenue and Island Terrace, 6430 S. Stony Island Ave. 

The mayor’s office did not respond to the Herald’s inquiry as to whether Wadsworth residents, most of whom do not yet have employment, will be eligible to move into these buildings.

Glen Cross, the deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Assets, Information and Services, who oversees the maintenance and infrastructure of city facilities, said contractors have been hired to clean up litter and maintain the lawn. The school’s playground set, which had long been in disrepair, was also dismantled.

Other changes to the property include the addition of a second camera facing 65th Street, according to Chicago Police Department Captain Scott Oberg.

“We are continuing our special attention at Wadsworth. We have daily check-ins there,” said Oberg.  

Oberg said he personally interacts with staff weekly and that the department collaborates with the U. of C. police force, noting that the university’s charter school, 6300 S. University Ave., is across the street.  

During the public comment portion, several neighbors also shared complaints, such as parking congestion, noise during soccer games, Wadsworth residents smoking outside and bike riding on sidewalks.   

Several neighbors allege that since the shelter opened, street parking has become congested. To mitigate this issue, Castañeda said that shelter residents and staff have been provided parking passes so that they may park on site.   

Donald Gordon, the head of the U. of C. Charter School’s Woodlawn campus, said school staff have also had an uptick in litter and activity surrounding the Wadsworth campus. As a result, Gordon said, the school changed its fire drill evacuation route from the Wadsworth playground to across 63rd Street. 

Completing its commitment to host monthly community meetings for the first three months after Wadsworth residents’ arrival, the city will host its next Wadsworth meeting in June. Residents can sign up for updates at chi.gov/WadsworthUpdates.

staff writer

Zoe Pharo is a graduate of Carleton College. She was recently an editorial intern for In These Times, and has also written for Little Village and Chapel Hill Magazine. 

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