5-year-old boy dies, five others hospitalized after becoming ill at Pilsen migrant shelter
A 5-year-old boy died Sunday and five more people, including four children, were hospitalized Monday after becoming ill at an overcrowded migrant shelter in Pilsen that has been the subject of repeated complaints about unsanitary conditions.
Jean Carlos Martinez was transported from the shelter at Cermak Road and Halsted Street to Comer Children’s Hospital just before 3 p.m. Sunday, police said. He was pronounced dead at 3:47 p.m. Autopsy results were inconclusive and pending further study, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Four more children and a woman were hospitalized Monday after becoming ill at the shelter.
Four girls, ages 1, 4, 8 and 9, and an 18-year-old woman were taken to hospitals at different times Monday morning with fever and vomiting, Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford said.
Their conditions weren’t immediately known.
Police are investigating the boy’s death. Migrant advocates say the boy died in a bathroom after staff refused to call an ambulance, but this could not be confirmed with police.
“My heart and my prayers go out to the Martinez family,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “The city will continue to provide resources and support to them during this difficult time,” Johnson said.
During an unrelated news conference that grew heated when reporters asked about the boy’s death, Johnson emphasized that “people are showing up in very extreme circumstances.”
“They’re just dropping off people anywhere,” he said, referring to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s migrant busing program. “Do you understand how raggedy and how evil that is?”
The Pilsen shelter is a converted warehouse that opened in early October and has since become the most crowded shelter in the city, holding over 2,000 people. It is run by Favorite Healthcare Staffing, a Kansas-based contractor the city has awarded close to $100 million to run shelters since September 2022, shortly after the first buses carrying migrants began arriving.
In a statement late Monday evening, the city highlighted the city’s efforts to provide medical care for migrants in shelters, including “thorough health screenings,” offering new arrivals “transportation to Cook County Health” and weekly visits by health care providers to shelters.
Changes to shelter staff protocols would be made based on findings in an investigation into the death, according to the statement.
A law enforcement source told the Sun-Times the child died en route or upon arrival to the hospital. He had a face mask on, was bleeding from his mouth and nose, had a fever of over 100 degrees and had had diarrhea for days.
The family had previously told shelter staff to leave them alone regarding the sick child, the source said.
The facility is one of several shelters that opened in the fall amid a crush of new arrivals and a push to move migrants from police stations.
Migrants at the shelter quickly began sharing complaints with reporters and advocates, alleging it was overcrowded with many people sick and staff indifferent to the conditions.
Videos from inside the shelter shared with a reporter showed water leaking through the ceiling onto cots where migrants sleep as well as many children who were visibly sick. Conditions appeared similar to those at the O’Hare Airport shelter, first reported on by the Sun-Times in September.
Volunteers who work with migrants say this is exactly why they have been asking the city for greater access to shelters.
“It’s really awful and preventable,” said Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, director of the Pilsen Food Pantry. “Nothing like this had to happen.”
Since before the shelter even opened, Figueroa said her organization had asked for access to it, especially to provide medical help.
Figueroa’s organization operates the Mobile Migrant Health Team, a volunteer health care organization run by local physicians, medical students and other health care workers, that provided care for thousands of migrants in police stations since the late spring.
In November, leaders from the medical team asked where the city needed help with migrants after it emptied out police stations, according to a screenshot message shared with the Sun-Times, to which an Office of Emergency Management and Communications official responded: “At this time we don’t believe that we will need help in shelters.”
Still, hundreds of migrants have been walking the mile from the shelter to the pantry to ask for medications, Figueroa said.
“This is the result of the city shutting out the people who have been helping,” Figueroa said. “We all really have to come together, we cannot lose another child.”
This isn’t the first incident of concern at the shelter.
In messages shared by Annie Gomberg, a longtime volunteer with migrants on the West Side, one desperate family called on volunteers in October after their child became unresponsive with a high fever, nosebleed and diarrhea.
The family was dissuaded from calling an ambulance by shelter staff, who told the family it would be “financially ruinous for them,” Gomberg said.
That child, a 3-year-old boy, was taken to a hospital after volunteers called emergency services and has since recovered.
The only reason there was a different result in the October case was because that family had volunteers who could advocate for them, Gomberg said.
“I don’t know how we wouldn’t see tragic consequences,” Gomberg said, adding how migrants often don’t speak English, are concerned about retaliation and either have no one to talk to or are ignored by those who are supposed to help.
Contributing Tom Schuba, Phyllis Cha
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.