CHICAGO — Maria Cinfuentes stood outside Chicago’s largest migrant shelter on a windy morning last week, rubbing her cold hands together and worrying about her future.
She learned last week that her stay at the shelter, the only home she’s known since arriving in the U.S. from Venezuela in December, will come to an end next month. But she has no idea where she’ll go next.
“I don’t have a job. My husband doesn’t have a job,” the 30-year-old mother of three told NBC News in Spanish. “I don’t know anyone here. How am I going to pay rent?”
More than 13,000 migrants like Cinfuentes are under pressure to find homes and work before they are mass-evicted from city-operated shelters to conserve the budget and make room for newcomers.
But in interviews last week with more than a dozen migrants, many who spoke to NBC News expressed fear that they won’t make that deadline, especially because it is nearly impossible for the newest arrivals to get rental assistance and quick access to work permits. Advocates say it’s unlikely that everyone will be able to successfully transition out of the shelters and instead will need to reapply for access to another shelter. They fear some will end up homeless.
“I can’t even sleep. I’m staying up all night thinking,” Cinfuentes said. “It makes me sick.”
Hoping to improve her chances, she said she has started walking around the city holding a sign that reads, “I am looking for work. Help me please find a job.”
‘Where am I going to go?’
As of Thursday, more than 13,200 migrants were living in 28 shelters run by the city and state, according to a city census of new arrivals. Most of them have arrived since June 2023 as part of a busing campaign by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who is seeking stricter security at the southern border. Last month, Abbott said he has sent more than 100,000 migrants to so-called sanctuary cities since April 2022, about 35,000 of them to Chicago.
Chicago, along with New York City and Denver, have struggled to keep up with the demand for housing and social services brought on by the influx. And in response, Chicago’s Mayor Brandon Johnson put a 60-day cap on how long people can stay in city-operated migrant shelters. The first wave of evictions will come in mid-March, with 5,673 people expected to be removed from their current shelters by the end of April.
Daniel Vizcaino, a 20-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker, has been told that his new move-out date is in early April.
“It really stresses me out,” he said. “What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?”
He’s been looking for housing since December. Although he has a case manager to oversee his search and three months of rental assistance to offer a potential landlord, he doesn’t have any leads.
Vizcaino spends his days trying to speed up the process by scrolling through Facebook Marketplace or walking around the city in search of “For Rent” signs.
He passes along whatever he finds to his case manager and waits for good news that never comes. Sometimes, he says, even if an apartment is willing to rent to migrants, the rent is too expensive once the rental assistance runs out. Catholic Charities, which is helping migrants with rental assistance move from shelters and hotels, says it has connected 11,891 people in Chicago to other housing.
“I’ve been trying for months and still nothing,” Vizcaino said. “I feel desperate because I really want to get out of here.”
‘It’s just not sustainable’
Vizcaino and others face long odds in putting the pieces together at all, let alone in time to meet the looming eviction deadline.
About 7,000 people, roughly half of the migrants in shelters, do not have access to rental assistance because they arrived after the state cut the program, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said. That means that they are under even greater pressure to find work to be able to afford rent.
But migrants who arrived in Chicago and elsewhere after July 31 are not eligible for an extension of what’s known as “temporary protected status,” which offers temporary relief from deportation and the right to obtain work authorization.
Without that protection, most migrants who qualify have to wait about six months after filing their complete asylum applications before they can receive work permits.
A majority of the migrants coming to Chicago are escaping political and economic strife in Venezuela and do not have family or friends in the U.S. to help them.
The Rev. Kenneth Phelps, who helps migrants find housing and other resources through the Concord Baptist Church, said the lack of rental assistance and work permits has made it “really impossible” for some migrants to leave the shelter system.
“If they don’t have work permits and they don’t have valid jobs, then they really can’t afford to live, to rent apartments,” he said. “Even with rental assistance, they won’t be able to sustain it beyond that.”
Those who are unable to find housing after they are evicted will be sent back to the city’s “landing zone” for new migrants and allowed to reapply for shelter, though it is unclear what that process will look like and how many people will be placed in another shelter. Advocates fear that when the time comes, it could create chaos as large numbers of migrants need placement.
The city’s family and support services commissioner, Brandie Knazze, said in January that disability, bereavement, gender-based violence and pregnancy would be among the “general categories for extension” of current shelter stays.
Johnson has said Chicago is spending about $1.5 million per day to provide temporary shelter, food and other necessities to migrants and that the potential of running out of money is part of the reason behind the push to make room in the shelters for the newly arrived. The city allocated $150 million to the migrant crisis in its 2024 fiscal year budget.
Johnson and others, including the Democratic governors of eight states, have urged the federal government to provide funding to ease the burden. They have also called for an increase in access to work authorization and faster approvals for those who qualify for work permits.
Pacione-Zayas, who oversees the city’s migrant response, said the city is working closely with the state to find apartments for the asylum-seekers but is in need of additional state and federal resources to make that happen.
“It’s just not sustainable,” she said.
The city has experienced a roughly fivefold increase in its shelter population since Johnson took office in May 2023, she said.
The barriers have made the dream of starting a new life in the U.S. seem out of reach, some migrants said.
Last Wednesday night, a group of about 30 newly arrived people met at Concord Baptist Church for a weekly English class. As part of the lesson, they were given a prompt by their instructor: “What is your dream?” he asked.
To “move forward with my family,” Elibexis Alvarez, a 28-year-old asylum-seeker, told NBC News in Spanish after class.
But right now, she said, she and her husband are stuck. Both are seeking jobs despite the monthslong wait for work permits and they are facing down the faint hope of finding an apartment before Alvarez, who is seven months pregnant, gives birth.
“He’s been trying to apply to job after job, looking for an apartment, anything that can give us some stability, because my due date is coming. How do you take care of a baby like that?” she said.
Vizcaino, who also attended the English class, said he dreams of resuming his career as a model, buying a car and taking night classes one day to become a lawyer, though he gets discouraged by the lack of control he has over his life.
“I thought coming to the United States would change my life. I would have security, peace of mind, but it’s been very different,” he said.
“Once I have a job and an apartment, I can go back to becoming who I want to be,” he said.