June 16, 2024

Evanston offers limited housing, funds to migrants

After living on the floors of police stations and warming centers, an asylum-seeking Venezuelan family of four arrived at the home of Evanston resident Kristin Huzar in early 2023. She planned to house them for a few days while they found their bearings. 

They ended up staying with her for nine months.

Huzar, with the help of community members and local food pantries, supported the family during their stay by fundraising $8,000 for their food and educational support. 

Now, the family lives in a studio apartment in the 5th Ward. Huzar, an ESL teacher at Nelson Elementary School in Niles, Ill., however, said the city should have offered more aid for migrants like the family she took in.

“I got zero help from the city,” Huzar said. 

While navigating the U.S. immigration system, many asylum seekers have reported they struggle to obtain work permits, limiting their employment and housing opportunities when settling. Similarly, limited state and federal funding has contributed to a “tough” housing situation for new arrivals to the city, said Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th). 

“In my opinion, to solve this problem we really need federal funding to be able to do something about it,” Geracaris said. “We have some city funds that we set aside for aid for migrants and refugees that are already living in Evanston.” 

Since Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced in November a 60-day eviction policy for new arrivals in Chicago from migrant shelters and police stations, many migrants have been seeking housing in nearby suburbs. 

In response, nearby municipalities like Rosemont and Aurora, Ill. have already passed restrictions on unscheduled bus drop-offs to regulate migrant intake. 

In a Jan. 8 news release, Evanston announced that the city was encouraged by the state to direct migrants to a “centralized location” in Chicago for processing. The city has also “actively sought suitable local shelter options for migrants” but found the process challenging, it said in the release.

When reached for comment, City Spokesperson Jessie Mayo said the city has no additional information to share. Director of Health and Human Services Ike Ogbo did not respond to a request for comment.

Evanston currently has a Refugee Assistance Fund of $50,000 and provides refugees funds for housing, food and other services. 

Residents also voted to grant $645,000 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to an affordable refugee housing project in the city’s participatory budgeting pilot, which was approved by City Council. The plan is set to be implemented this summer, Geracaris said.

Still, Evanston currently lacks a suitable shelter to house migrants, which must have a sufficient number of bathrooms and kitchens, Geracaris said. Apart from the Refugee Assistance Fund, Evanston does not have any other city-backed programs to provide funding for migrants. 

Beyond that, it is very difficult for migrants to find private housing in Evanston, where housing costs are generally high, Geracaris said. 

“One of the things that make it extremely tough is that folks show up and they’re not allowed to work legally,” he said. “Once they get here they have to apply for asylum, and while they’re waiting to receive asylum and have a stable immigration status, during that time they can’t work.”

Currently, Illinois is providing up to $9,000 for refugees in rental assistance, but eligible candidates need to have secured authorization to work. 

Geracaris said the number of people the RAF has supported has not been “huge”. According to The Chicago Tribune, about half of the funds had been spent to help 14 migrants as of last May. 

Current migrants in Evanston are living in apartments usually set up by community members, said Geracaris. He added that he has personally helped sponsor refugees through the Chicago-based aid organization RefugeeOne. 

Huzar said she and her team found a landlord who was willing to lease to the Venezuelan family without a credit history, a struggle Geracaris also noted. 

Still, Huzar praised the support she’s seen migrants receive from Evanston/Skokie School District 65, particularly noting the Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association, a program that provides clothing to children in need. 

“The only negative part of the experience of housing them was that utility bills were really, really large, and now I’m still kind of digging myself out of that hole,” Huzar said.

Huzar and Geracaris both expressed concern over high rent prices in Evanston. 

To help address this issue, Huzar said she would like to see the city create incentives for residents to house new arrivals, which could be cheaper than providing funding for a shelter.

“I wish the city of Evanston stepped up and said ‘Hey, I know you’re housing these people, here, you know, let’s give you some resources,’” Huzar said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @shreyasrin

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Shepard Residential College drive collects blankets and coats for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees

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