South Shore leaders are left out of city’s plan to convert high school into shelter for families seeking asylum

The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office announced Tuesday that the former school would be used as a shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Community leaders in South Shore say they were left in the dark about plans to convert a shuttered high school into a shelter for families seeking asylum as Chicago experiences a surge in immigration.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office is organizing a community meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday at the former South Shore High School, located at 7627 S. Constance Ave., according to an online invitation. Lightfoot’s office Tuesday wouldn’t confirm details about the plan.

“A community meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 4th, to inform residents about the use of the former South Shore High School as a temporary respite site. We will continue collaborating with community-based organizations and local and community leaders to support those in need,” according to a statement issued Tuesday afternoon by the mayor’s office.

In a statement, Ald. Michelle Harris, whose 8th Ward includes the school site, said she does not support housing newly arrived immigrant families at the shuttered school because she has questions and concerns about the funding, safety and “humanity,” of the plan. Harris said she plans to press for alternative solutions.

“I was recently notified by the mayor’s office that the old South Shore High School building will house migrant families. Housing sites are operating in every part of the city, and this site is one of the last facilities available to house migrant families,” Harris said in the statement.

Lightfoot’s office was criticized by Woodlawn residents earlier this year when a shuttered school was converted into a shelter for immigrants. And now residents in neighboring South Shore are expressing similar frustrations.

Dianne Hodges, of the South Merrill Community Garden, said she was among the more than a dozen South Shore community leaders who were not informed about the plan, adding city officials need to communicate better with residents.

“I’m disturbed with the fact that so many deals are made under the table and behind the door,” Hodges said. “And they feel like they can give us a meeting, and we’ll go away and they’ll be able to do what they want to do. That has to stop.”

Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks the neighborhood is being used as a “dumping ground” when residents have tried to be intentional about planning decisions.

“Is it the best use of the building, and is it the right solution for asylum seekers?” Trice asked. “And that’s what’s troubling to me because are these decisions being made just randomly?”

The former South Shore High School at 7627 S. Constance Ave. Community members want city officials to do a better job communicating their plans for the site.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For years, South Shore residents have pushed to have a say in the use of the property that was leased out to the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Fire Department. At one point, residents thought an agreement had been reached for the space to eventually be used for education, cultural and community purposes, said LaShawn Brown, of South Shore Works.

“Every time we change administrations, it seems as though what was talked about with the community, what arrangements had been made with the community goes by the wayside,” Brown said.

Craig Carrington, who is part of an alumni group from South Shore High School, said they haven’t had access to the property when they’ve organized events for former students to get together.

The possibility of the shelter comes as residents are pushing for a community benefits agreement to avoid displacement from the nearby Obama Presidential Center.

Dixon Romeo, executive director of Not Me We, said the demand for housing for immigrants shows the greater need for affordable housing in Chicago that could have been used to shelter the new arrivals and other unhoused residents.

“We can’t let the mayor’s poor planning pit Black folks against Brown folks,” Romeo said. “Our common target is the source of why we have issues in our communities.”

News about the shelter was first reported by Block Club Chicago.

The meeting will come about a week after officials at a City Council committee meeting said the city was out of money, space and time to handle the influx of asylum seekers that have made their way to Chicago since August.

A recent uptick in the number of immigrants has resulted in many spending several nights on the floor of police stations as they wait for a shelter bed.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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