The former Wadsworth Elementary School building, 6420 S. University Ave., in October 2015

The city’s use of the former Wadsworth Elementary School as a temporary shelter for hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers has been a point of contention and frustration for many in the community for months. 

But a coalition of neighbors and religious leaders in Woodlawn are trying to change the narrative, creating an initiative to ease the new residents’ integration into the community.

Dubbed Chicago 4 All, the initiative aims to integrate the asylum seekers into the Woodlawn community through different programs and events, such as English classes, a neighborhood beautification project and bilingual church services. 

After months of delays of the shelter’s opening and amid ongoing opposition from some neighbors, the city began moving about 100 men and women into Wadsworth, 6420 S. University Ave., on Feb. 2.

The sudden move also followed several public meetings in which residents repeatedly expressed exasperation to city officials at the project’s moving ahead without community input and in a neighborhood many said the city has neglected for decades. Other residents have expressed xenophobic or racially-charged opposition.

After a heated community meeting in January, Paula Gean, a Woodlawn resident who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia as a child, wanted to help build relationships between longtime residents and the new neighbors and “pull support and streamline communications and services for the asylum seekers.”

“There's been a really negative perception going around and some racist remarks from some community members, and not the entire community feels that way,” Gean said. “I think this is a really good way to show solidarity.”

Rev. Dr. Kenneth D. Phelps of Concord Missionary Baptist Church, 6319 S. Kimbark Ave., is among the local religious leaders partnering on the initiative.  

“Our position is simply this: they’re here, they’re human. Some of them are hurting and they need help,” Phelps said. “We believe that this is what Christ would have us do because hospitality and welcoming strangers are Christian virtues.”

Chicago 4 All formally kicks off this Saturday, Feb. 18 with the first weekly bilingual service for migrants and other Woodlawn community members at Concord Missionary Baptist Church. The service begins at noon and is open to all.

Spanish translation and other assistance during the bilingual services will be provided by Pastor David and Yolanda Cruz of Father’s Heart Church in Belmont Cragin. Following the service, Concord Missionary will offer a fellowship hour where Phelps said they plan to hand out care packages with food, hygiene products and other supplies. The church is still accepting supply donations for the packages, specifically hygiene products, and volunteers to help with assembly.

According to Phelps, Concord Missionary is also developing a Home Away From Home Center within the church that will hold English classes, an internet cafe and a community kitchen for migrants to prepare traditional, home-cooked meals. 

“We'll be there offering spiritual encouragement for the community,” Phelps said. “We just feel like this is a really good way to bring about healing.”

The initiative was formally announced at a community meeting with city officials on Thursday, Feb. 16. The city is also backing the initiative. Future plans for the project include adding yoga and meditation classes and a neighborhood beautification effort, i.e. litter pickup. Additionally, a daily prayer will be held at 7 p.m. at Light of the World Church, 840 E. 65th St.

Gean said she hopes the initiative will ease the strain on city resources and give migrants more opportunities to embed themselves in the community. 

“When you're new, you don't know where to go or who to turn to, especially when there's been such vitriol in the news,” Gean said. “I hope that this helps the asylum seekers and or other community members understand what's available and ‘here's how I can help.’”

The use of Wadsworth as a shelter is part of the city’s response to the more than 5,100 migrants who have been bussed to Chicago from Texas and Colorado since August 2022. Another 1,500 people similarly seeking refugee or asylum status have also arrived to the city independently in that time.

The city has so far set up 14 temporary housing accommodations in decommissioned libraries, vacant schools, churches and park facilities across the city. But new arrivals are coming every day, a spokesperson from  the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), and the shelter system is getting increasingly overwhelmed.

Beyond Woodlawn, Gean added that she hopes the initiative could grow into a model for the city to use across its other shelters.

“Imagine coming to someone's house and they're complete jerks to you. You would never want to go back or help them,” Gean said. “But if we can make (our neighbors) advocates or (friends), then these people will come back and they'll pour back into this community. I know that because I'm living proof of that.”

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