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A Chicago faith-based nonprofit furnishes homes for asylum seekers

By December 4, 2023December 18th, 2023Immigration Policy

New Life Centers’ New Vecino program, funded by the state, provides asylum seekers with wraparound services and furniture for new apartments.

Sebastian Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine
Sandra Milena Gallego and Jheyson Pulgarin Moncada, left, review the list of families receiving donated furniture from Chicago Furniture Bank, while other employees ready rental trucks inside the New Life Centers' warehouse in Little Village on Nov. 27th, 2023.
By December 4, 2023December 18th, 2023Immigration Policy

New Life Centers’ New Vecino program, funded by the state, provides asylum seekers with wraparound services and furniture for new apartments.

Jorge Crespo finds a spot for a newly donated bedroom set inside his apartment with his wife and teenage daughter in south suburban University Park. 

His apartment, secured just days, is tucked away in a corridor surrounded by rowhouses, a parking lot, and acres of sprawling fields about 36 miles from Chicago. 

The home is a welcome refuge after months of uncertainty.

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The Crespos migrated through the Panama jungle, traversed treacherous rivers, and crossed the U.S. border to seek asylum. After being bussed from Texas to Chicago, they spent months sleeping in tents outside police stations and at a city-run shelter. For the first time since leaving Venezuela, the Crespos feel like they have finally found stable housing. 

“It’s better here,” he said, noting his older daughter living in New York City, had not seen the same level of support from the local government. 

Crespo and his family are among hundreds of asylum seekers who have received furniture for their new apartments as part of New Life Centers’ New Vecinos program, a state-funded initiative helping with migrant resettlement efforts.

Since May, the Chicago faith-based organization has worked to provide furniture to migrants after they are approved by the state’s Asylum Seeker Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which offers three-month rental assistance for migrants

Over the last seven months, New Life Centers and the Chicago Funiture Bank have filled about 1,400 apartments with furniture since starting these efforts in the spring. The group furnishes 125 new homes weekly, but they expect their delivery efforts to increase following a change in the city’s shelter policy. 

Jheyson Pulgarin Moncada, a New Life Centers employee, loads one of many mattresses provided by Chicago Furniture Bank, Chicago Southside. November 17th, 2023Sebastian Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine

Last month, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Chicago would limit shelter stays to 60 days for migrants. The expedited plan aims to get asylum seekers out of police districts and shelters and put the onus on all levels of government to get people to work, Johnson said.

“We are implementing a tiered 60-day shelter stay limit, combined with robust case management and workforce access to move new arrivals through our system to self-sufficiency and economic stability,” Johnson said in a press conference. 

About 13,100 asylum seekers remain in city-run shelters and over 1,000 outside police stations and O’Hare International Airport, while 8,326 individuals and families resettled, and 2,906 reunited with sponsors at the end of November, according to city data.

Andre Gordillo, director of New Life Centers’ New Vecinos program, said the organization is hiring more caseworkers and movers to keep up with the resettlement efforts. 

The pressure to get families into housing weighs on New Vecinos workers at New Life, Gordillo said, who believes more can be done to help migrant families resettle.

“No one had a manual on how to best deal with this,” Gordillo said. “We’ve got a team of people that want to serve and help.”

In late November, New Vecinos drivers and movers Jheyson Pulgarin Moncada and Sandra Milena Gallego load a truck with mattresses, wooden bedframes, pillows, a few dressers, carpets, and some paintings from the Chicago Funiture Bank warehouse in Chicago’s Southside. They drive throughout the city and suburbs, filling apartments and homes with furniture for asylum seekers while reflecting on what they have seen as part of the effort. 

“It’s really hard to see it, more so when their kids are outside of shelters and now with the cold, we see them, and I say: ‘My god!’” Milena Gallego said. “There are people who need basic needs to live a basic human life. A good way of life.” 

The movers arrive at a Morgan Park home with a garden and spacious driveway. Gallego reads the next name on the list: Marianny Yamileth Perez Perez. 

Gallego and Moncada move furniture past Perez, who lives in the basement apartment with her husband and two daughters.  She sits in the backyard watching her two-year-old daughter play while her husband, Hector, helps movers bring furniture inside the home.

Hector José Guaira A. Ponte, Marianny Yamileth Perez Perez, and Kathaleya Stefanią Guaira A Ponte sit inside their basement apartment on Chicago’s Southside.Sebastian Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine

The Perez family has been in the rental assigned home since September. She’s grateful for the support her family has received. The new furniture is the first time they feel they own something. 

The next step, Perez said, is to get work permits to live a better life and support their aging parents in Venezuela.

After so much uncertainty, Perez said the furnished home offers hope and security. She is gratified to see her oldest daughter come home from school to do her homework every day. “She tells me: ‘Mom, I don’t want to move anymore.”

Kathaleya Stefania Guaira Perez, 2, opens the door to her apartment for New Life Centers movers. Stefania, her parents, and her older sister live in the basement.Sebastian Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine