“Yeah, sure, I can make scrambled eggs for three families.” At the time it seemed unfathomable that there were any number of people sleeping on the floors of police stations. Joselyn and Anna, mutual aid organizers with experience in the Chicago Food Sovereignty Coalition joined the Police Station Response Team. They got to know the asylum seekers who endured an indefinite wait for public services at police headquarters in their neighborhood, dropping off meals and making conversation. They learned one day in May that the alderman had secured a space to move people to and helped some of these new neighbors transport their belongings to a massive warehouse that same night.
At first calls went out for anyone who could to come “help.” People began dropping off a random assortment of used goods, quickly filling a large portion of the first floor of what would become living space. Over the next weeks, a combination of community members made repairs and improvements to modify the rooms for comfort. Someone built a row of “tienditas” (in this case closets) stocked with wanted donations of clothing, hygiene items, and basic necessities. Someone else decorated them, while someone else found a safe place to store the paint used in decorating away from many little hands. Children grew close playing in open space and fresh air, and as the summer wore on, more than 200 people moved in. This space would become known as Todo Para Todos.
The organizers sought to support asylum seekers with far greater respect than the contempt they witnessed from representatives of the Department of Family Support Services or the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, the city agencies responsible for the eighteen city-run “shelters” to which people are directed once they’ve languished an indeterminate number of days in police stations. In three months, the volunteers raised more than $12,000; served more than 13,000 hot meals; hosted legal services clinics; sought out state and city cooperation at every possible level; helped more than 100 people find their own apartments; and publicized what they’d learned about how to help others find independent housing.
But being continually denied access to the far greater resources the city holds, TPT decided to close on its own terms, shuttering the shelter on September 3. In their last week of operation, a handful of volunteers sat down with Rampant to collectively account for what they had accomplished with “spreadsheets, group chats, and relationships.”
The Todo Para Todos Shelter
On a sunny afternoon on the South Side of Chicago outside a big warehouse, an impromptu reunion of friends, almost as if they (we) were back in the old neighborhood back home. In a semicircle of chairs five or six asylum seekers were chatting about life in the US, life in their new home. The future seemed uncertain as the Todo Para Todos building was set to close, and they may have to go back to a police station. Folks were aware of the misconduct of the police at the stations and worried for their safety, the safety of their wives and kids. What will happen? Would they have to go back to sleep on the floor? With the insecurity that sleeping in or outside a police station brings?
They accepted flyers about actions they can take so they will not have to go back to Texas or appeal to a judge or court there. Most of them had already filed documents so their cases could be taken care of here in Chicago. Having been “shipped” here from the border, an inhumane practice that the Republican governor of Texas has been doing to so-called sanctuary cities around the country, to mostly cities with Democratic mayors, they have no means to appear in court in Texas.
Men outside were drinking sodas and helping a neighbor with their car, something that made them proud to do. “We like to help others, give back what is being given to us,” they told Rampant.
Inside, close to twenty inflatable beds lined the walls. A group of both men and women were peeling carrots and prepping dinner, helping in and out of the shelter to “restore our dignity,” a common phrase that we hear around shelters and around the city.
The warehouse was divided into three sections, with space for kids to play, but nearby there was a park where kids had also been enjoying playing. Organizers pointed out to us that there was a medicine room and at the end of the building—showers!—something that not everyone has the luxury of having, certainly not in police stations.
As we all know, mutual-aid groups have sprung up since Covid happened in Chicago. But mutual aid is not a strange thing among us. Organizers at Todo Para Todos told us about how they saw the need of taking folks out of police stations and the inaction of the government in responding to this “’crisis.” Even alderpersons on the “left” argued about housing our brothers, sisters, and siblings from the South. What is there to fight about? Humans helping other humans?
Organizers at the shelter looked happy and proud for what they accomplished but also sad that their time helping on this shelter is coming to an end, already looking for other ways to help others. It is very clear right now that if not for mutual aid groups, the help that asylum seekers are getting would not have been possible. In one of the richest cities in the world those struggling for survival must wonder: Where is the money? Where are their hearts?
“Building a Plane While Flying”
In the early days of the project, organizers spoke about how the difficulty of meeting the tremendous, immediate needs of newly arriving asylum seekers took priority. As Joselyn Walsh put it, “It was a lot of ‘we gotta figure out what’s for dinner tonight. We gotta figure out what’s for breakfast tomorrow morning.’”
As volunteer Anna DiStefano summed up, “the catchphrase in the first couple weeks was, “We’re building a plane while we fly.”
Crucial also was bringing in more volunteers. The organizers utilized their experience and connections with existing mutual aid organizations to bring in support from the 25th Ward IPO, the Police Station Response Team, the Pilsen Food Pantry, and the Food Sovereignty Coalition, other vital sources of volunteers.
Yet as the project grew in volunteers and partnerships, and organizing efforts began to take some pressure off meeting immediate needs, the organizers began to grapple with deeper questions about what their goals were, as well as their shared values and political philosophies around mutual aid. They realized, as Walsh remarked, that people might be coming to this work “from different angles,” raising questions about charity and solidarity, as well as how organizers should relate to the residents of TPT.
Renata Ballesteros was initially skeptical of the project, specifically concerned that it smacked of white saviorism. Her first impressions of Todo Para Todos before getting involved were: “I don’t see voices from residents being represented, so I don’t want to have anything to do with that . . . as a Mexican woman I was like, I’m not gonna be your front to justify your actions.”
Fellow organizers acknowledge that in the early days, overburdened and overwhelmed organizers were not as conscious about these questions. As Walsh put it, “Obviously this is a white supremacy culture trait—we were in that urgency mode of like, okay, we got to get this thing done. We got to get this meal served.”
However, Ballesteros found that upon raising her concerns directly with organizers, she was met not with defensiveness but instead acknowledgement and openness. “I was super up-front with my friend about that and she was like, ‘Yeah, actually we do see that as a problem and we’re thinking that way.’” Reassured that organizing methods could be transformed, Ballesteros decided to get involved.
Both new volunteers and concrete setbacks forced organizers to take a step back and be more intentional about what they were trying to build, beyond their capacity to meet immediate needs. They realized not only that they needed to work against a developing hierarchy among volunteers and residents (something of a default for charity organizations and NGOs) but that in order to do that, residents needed to be involved in the running and decision-making processes of Todo Para Todos.
Organizers were quite sober about the importance of this shift and the dangers faced if they got it wrong. As volunteer René D. Flores, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, put it, “This place could have become something different. . . . It could have taken a very negative turn. It could have become like a Stanford Prison Experiment where you have guards and prisoners.”
Indeed, organizers spoke of intentional structures and collective meetings as crucial elements of escaping such carceral models. For Ballesteros, who studies worker co-op and collective organizing models, in the absence of intentional models, “everything reverts into the common culture of hierarchy and command and control and those power inequalities start taking over, especially under stress.”
This was certainly born out in the precedents being established by other organizations such as the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), whose interventions at Todo Para Todos continued to replicate carceral, white-savior style dynamics. (One volunteer was scolded by a city DFSS worker: “You don’t seem to understand. You have to treat these people like babies, or they won’t understand you.”)
Disgusted with the prevailing racism and paternalism so often embedded in this work—as well as the tendency for organizations to become parasites that justify their own existence on the backs of others’ suffering—the organizers at Todo Para Todos explored and experimented with different ways of doing things.
Building trust between residents and volunteers was never going to be easy. As organizers acknowledged, it took time. As Walsh put it, “There’s lines of communication—we can’t just put out a sign-up sheet and expect a resident to sign up the same way that a volunteer would.” Many residents were skeptical of volunteers initially. Exacerbating a general skepticism is the reality that many residents are arriving after having experienced countless abuses of power in their home countries as well as on their journeys. Being kidnapped by Governor Greg Abbott is often only the latest in a string of experiences of state violence, neglect, and dishonesty migrants have faced before they arrive in Chicago. As Flores recalls, residents have asked him, “Are you a politician? Are you an evangelical Christian? Why are you guys doing this?”
But through thoughtful organizing and openness to experimentation (as well acknowledging previous mistakes), organizers continued to try to build trust.
As Ballesteros explained, the collective began to take a more “popular education approach to running meetings” by “starting with listening and letting people’s curiosity kind of lead the meeting and responding to those needs.” Because Todo Para Todos has closed, this work could never be completed, but toward the project’s end, organizers were excited and proud to see the way things were moving. As Ballesteros reflects: “It was really cool to see residents’ response . . . uplifted and getting a lot of motivation to create their own cleaning teams. Or like finding ways to create cooking teams so they could sign up to cook at a kitchen.” In addition to the collaboration in shared work, she emphasizes how important it was “to hear things that I hadn’t thought about only seeing things from the volunteer perspective.”
By the time the shelter closed, the collective had crafted a thoughtful decision-making process with shared principles and agreements, including sections on abolition (specifically a commitment to the decriminalization of migration), horizontality, and accountability in addition to things like a trauma-centered approach, respecting autonomy, and a section on mutual aid as an act of solidarity rather than of charity. Meetings between volunteers and residents would take place in the evenings to discuss issues of the day and the organization of the shelter. Rather than a typical leadership structure, this was organized as a “spokes council”, with different groups (including everything from building maintenance, to housing, to fundraising to programming for kids) acting as point people for certain areas but decision-making taking place in the spokes council meetings.
Despite the new mayoral administration, support from the city (for asylum seekers generally, let alone for Todo Para Todos) has been limited and lagging. Organizers described the biggest difference between the Lightfoot and Johnson administrations as, essentially, more promises to break. Despite Todo Para Todos keeping more than 200 people fed, supported with resources, and—perhaps most important—off police station floors, officials said no to everything organizers asked for.
As DiStefano explained, because of the lack of material support for community-run efforts and the slow response to the influx citywide, Mayor Johnson’s tour of TPT early in his term added insult to injury, giving residents and organizers alike false hope that the city would offer support. After declining to recognize TPT as an official city-sanctioned shelter, the city refused to consider residents eligible for short-term rent vouchers, one of few (albeit inadequate and fragmentary) supports the city does provide for migrants.
TPT organizer Lindsay Gifford, also an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, has been part of meetings with Johnson’s team—along with other experts on migration and resettlement—to try and advise the administration’s response. Gifford called for a “greater level of trust and a comparative nature of work,” acknowledging that there can be layers and timetables to this work which are both intentional and also responsive: “You need to kind of get the bullet points and move forward quickly for at least the emergency response. And then you can have the short-term time horizon, the mid-term time horizon, and the long-term time horizon.”
Additionally, the support of 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, initially crucial to the project’s foundation (Sigcho-Lopez secured the warehouse which would become Todo Para Todos), waned toward the project’s end, perhaps due to a lack of hoped-for city support.
The volunteer organizers who were a part of the Todo Para Todos effort are very open about the multi-pronged difficulties of making a project like this work. The enormity of meeting hundreds of people’s immediate and urgent needs without government support and without falling into carceral logics is a vexing predicament increasingly faced not only by Todo Para Todos but also by the myriad mutual aid projects attempting to respond to the full-scale abandonment and precarity that neoliberalism has left behind in its wake. Walsh laid out this juncture, likely familiar to other mutual aid organizers, vividly:
One of the biggest obstacles was definitely that we could have used some more of that time to reflect, think deeply . . . [to] sit in the grass and talk amongst ourselves about “What’s our best next approach?” But when we’re all also working full-time jobs and have other obligations outside of it, and then somebody’s pregnant and has to go to the hospital and so we’ve got to get them there, and then the delivery driver for dinner wasn’t able to make it so somebody’s got to get over there really quick, and then the side door is broken and the alarm is going off, somebody’s got to find the key to turn it off. . .
Walsh also pointed out that this frenzy is all made much more difficult by the frayed bonds of social solidarity in our society, emphasizing that the pervasive alienation and lack of care we live enmeshed in means that projects like this have to do double the work—building relationships from the ground up while also doing the actual logistics involved. Walsh notes that she sees a lot of the organizers becoming drawn to work in mutual aid or cooperative spaces “because we see that as what can set us up to better respond to crises like this in the future.”
Gifford agreed that while the problems are structural, there are many opportunities for the city to do things differently. Even despite an absent social safety net or robust program of support for migrants (as well as generally for the poor) in this city, there has been energy and interest in practical solidarity throughout the city. As Gifford says, “I think what we have here going on in Chicago is really interesting because it’s clear that there are hundreds, thousands of people involved in civil society organizations or just grassroots mobilization who are willing to come put in the work and put in the effort.”
The problem, though, as with Todo Para Todos, is that there doesn’t seem to be any plan in place by the city to encourage and support these solidarity efforts, let alone to help spearhead them: “So if the mayoral administration says we need your help and then we’ve got all this help and energy, we haven’t figured out a way also to structure that. . . . Where does all that energy go? Where do all these different forms of expertise go? . . . And so it ends up just kind of floating out into the ether and people get frustrated and probably give up.”
Another issue organizers spoke to was the fact that their collective structure–an attempt to refuse paternalistic saviorism–is still seen as easy to disregard by many organizations and city officials. As Ballesteros put it, “It’s a chronic problem among worker co-op movements that . . . so many accountants and so many bureaucrats and so many financial people just don’t believe that that could even be possible. So then they don’t invest in it and then they fail and they’re like, ‘Oh, see, it fails’ . . . It failed because you made it fail.”
In July, TPT organizers notified the city that without support, they would likely be forced to close the shelter. Even after TPT’s space stopped hosting asylum seekers September 3, organizers continued to work side by side with people implementing what they’d learned together to secure apartments. By September 11, Chicago had signed a contract with notorious human rights abuser GardaWorld to enclose migrants in large tents.
The defense contractor with a history of detaining migrants in deplorable conditions will collect more than $29 million from the city to, among other things, staff the camps with security pulled from former military and law enforcement backgrounds. Migrants, organizers, and communities long left in the cold in Chicago deserve so much better—a city that uses its vast resources to actually provide everything for everyone.