This story was originally published in the Hyde Park Herald. Reprinted with permission.
More than a dozen volunteers gathered on a blustery Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a warehouse on the Arts Block of Washington Park, sorting clothing and other donations
Spending the holiday in service, people arrived in shifts to help set up a “tiendita,” a new free store for migrants, and anyone in need, to get free clothing, hygiene kits and household items.
Volunteers, among them University of Chicago and Akiba-Schecter Jewish Day School students, signed up in one hour shifts with Arcelia Guerrero Wolfe, the organizer of the drive.
Wolfe, who works in admissions for the U. of C. Laboratory schools and is also a master’s student at the U. of C., has been volunteering to help new arrivals since July of this year, where she observed a dire need for clothing, shoes and other items. By the end of the summer, Wolfe started collecting donations from neighbors, using her campus network, and distributing them to people sheltering at local police stations.
“It was pretty overwhelming for me, because what I was doing, I was actually going to each home picking up clothes and putting it into my car, and then going to (the police station) to distribute clothes,” she said.
At first, she and other volunteers assisted about fifty people at each of the mid-South Side’s two police stations. But as the cold set in and station populations doubled, “My car was packed all the time,” Wolfe said.
Upon hearing about some of the immense loads being shouldered by volunteers, Ané Maríñez-Lora, an assistant professor at the U. of C.’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, reached out to the university’s Office of Civic Engagement for help. The office helped volunteers obtain a free, physical space through its Commercial Real Estate Operations department.
Also known as the “The Muffler Shop,” 353 E. Garfield Blvd., the space is temporary; it will last through March.
“We have to be really grateful,” Maríñez-Lora said. “We’re not paying for the space. It has been heated, it has electricity, so it’s quite a generous temporary space that we’ve been provided.”
Since late August of 2022, per city data, more than 30,000 people have arrived in Chicago from the country’s southern border, most of whom have been bussed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbot in protest of federal immigration policy.
The new arrivals, most of whom are from Venezuela, according to Wolfe, are living in the city’s more than twenty-seven temporary shelters created in repurposed schools, city facilities and hotels.
In the first couple weeks the shop has been open, Wolfe said, volunteers have served seventy to eighty people.
“We’ve had people come shopping from shelters, from apartments, especially now these past two weeks it’s gotten cold,” she said. “It’s very convenient for them to come here.”
She noted the store has already seen visitors from the Lake Shore Hotel shelter, 4900B S. Lake Shore Dr., the Wadsworth shelter, 6420 S. University Ave., and from a third shelter in the West Loop, 344 N. Ogden Ave.
“I just talked to one family last week, she had just got off the bus and was in flip flops,” Wolfe said. “The kids were wearing gym shoes, they didn’t have coats, they had these thin little sweatshirts.”
“A couple weeks ago, (Chicago) had 600 people come from Texas to a ‘landing zone,’ Wolfe said. “When we hear of situations like that … we load up our cars, stuff it with blankets, with anything, all warm gear, and we drive to the ‘landing zone’ to give clothes out.”
On Saturday, due to extreme cold and wind chills, the City of Chicago announced that migrants awaiting shelter placement at the city’s West Loop landing zone, a designated area where buses are supposed to drop off new arrivals, would be relocated to one of seven warming centers. The city also announced Friday that it would put a pause on its 60-day shelter limit, due to the cold temperatures, and temporarily hold off on evicting migrants.
Donations currently being accepted for the store include clothing, shoes, blankets and towels, as well as items like bed sheets, shower curtains, kitchenware and furniture.
After March, plans for the store are up in the air. As of now, the shop is open every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 1pm, and volunteers can sign up for shifts online at signupgenius.com/go/10C0F4BA4A623A4F85-47017313-volunteer#/
Zoe Pharo is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald.