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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

Advocate hopes state grant will give housing relief to some asylum seekers already in Elgin

The city of Elgin received a 1.27 million dollar state grant to support asylum seekers. The biggest portion will assist asylum seekers with housing needs, just as the temperatures begin to drop.

Centro de Información is expected to administer the rental and utility assistance program.

Dianha Ortega-Ehreth, the executive director of the nonprofit, said staff were overjoyed with the possibility of offering some families rental and utility assistance, at least temporarily.

“Let me tell you, when I told our caseworkers that, to start putting a priority list together, because this funding was approved for the city of Elgin, they started crying,” Ortega-Ehreth said.

Rental assistance programs for asylum seekers were previously limited to those who were staying at shelters in Chicago.

“We can help with a lot of things, but it's hard to send them back outside,’ she said, “And so, this change was really a big deal.”

She said with the housing funding, they're prioritizing families, especially those with young children. She recalls reports of people being directed to police stations in Chicago as their only choice for shelter.

“We should not be okay with masses of people sleeping on the floors of police precincts – period,” she said, “but especially women who are pregnant or women who have infants, sleeping on the floors of police precincts.”

“As soon as I heard that, I couldn't sleep,” she said.

No funding will go towards the construction of a mass shelter, but she believes the grant will help make a small dent in the larger challenge of housing.

“Ultimately, we want to help some families to basically just not be homeless, especially over the winter months,” she said.

She said they aim to help about 50 families who’ve already been seen by the organization.

While many asylum seekers have made their way to Illinois because they were bussed from Texas, she said most of the families who El Centro serves, choose to settle in Elgin.

There’s no official checkpoint, but she estimates that close to a 1,000 people have arrived in the area.

“They have somehow collected whatever money they had available and wanted to get to the Chicago area,” she said, “Either they had a friend or a cousin or a relative and decided to come here on their own.”

El Centro has been serving Latinos in the Greater Elgin area since 1972. The nonprofit hosts a welcoming center that is partially funded by the state. It serves as an entry point for new arrivals to get information and plug into to programs that help them integrate into the community. She said over the last year they’ve seen around 300 families. That’s a 400 percent increase from the previous year.

With some of state funding, they’ll be able expand their legal support services and hire another case worker who is specially trained to conduct thorough intake processes with new arrivals.

She said for one asylum seeker from Venezuela, the staff took five hours to understand her needs and connect her with resources.

“She needed clothing. She needed a way to communicate with her family back home. She needed some financial assistance to help find a way, you know, to help cover some transportation costs for herself as she gets settled. And so, we were able to help her with all of that and more.”

She said the asylum seeker was able to find a bed at a local shelter.

“And that's good,” she said, “Not everyone who has come out to the suburbs has been so lucky.”

She said the availability of rental units in Kane County has been a longstanding issue. So, they keep a list of properties that tend to have unit openings.

“And we help our clients call in advocate for them to, to get in if they're able,” she said.

“And oftentimes, it's very frustrating because by the time they call, you know, there's already a list of 50 people on the waitlist for that rental property.”

She said the housing crisis has sometimes placed people in situations where their desperation is exploited.

“A lot of people staying in small one- or two-bedroom apartments being charged rent. That's very expensive for the little space that they get in, in those small spaces. And people, unfortunately, being taken advantage of in those situations,” she said.

When preparing a priority list of families to support, she said they also consider folks who have the best chance of being self-sustaining once the funding runs out.

A major obstacle to that is work authorization.

Advocates and legislators, including Illinois’ governor, have called on the Biden Administration to expedite work authorization applications.

“We have for some months now seen the people who came last year just starting to get their work permits being approved,” she said.

“So, it takes time.”

Grant needs approval from the Elgin City Council

Under the grant, the city of Elgin serves as the pass through. Organizations report spending under certain categories to the city who then requests repayment from the state.

Elgin council member Rosamaria Martinez said the program provides the organizations a reimbursements.

“The city's not getting a cut of it,” she said, “It doesn't work that way.”

The other potential recipients of the funding include Food for Greater Elgin and the Well Child Center.

Elgin Council member Carol Rauschenberger said she doesn’t foresee the city council having difficulty accepting the grant.

“At this point, we're just supporting people that are already here.”

The Elgin City Council will take a vote on the grant program on Wednesday.

You can find information about the organizations that are recipients of the grant below:

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.