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Opinion: We're related through place and spirit

The Inn of Chicago houses migrants from Venezuela. It used to be the Hotel St. Clair when Scott Simon and his father lived there.
Caroline Simon
The Inn of Chicago houses migrants from Venezuela. It used to be the Hotel St. Clair when Scott Simon and his father lived there.

The city of Chicago opens a new shelter for migrants every six days. About 1,500 people can be housed in the Inn of Chicago, which was the Hotel St. Clair when my father and I lived there — a faded, old place with small, dim rooms for people who worked in nightspots nearby. My father died there one morning — room 12-M — in 1968. My wife and I dropped by this week.

The people living here now have walked through fields, jungles, and swamps to reach the US border from Venezuela, where they say life has become treacherous under a tyrannical regime. Then they were brought by bus to Chicago. We weren't permitted inside, but saw many families outside the shelter, sipping drinks from a donut shop. A little girl stood up on blue and pink-wheeled roller skates. A little boy bounced a ball against the hotel's stone wall, and ran after it into the street. I used to do that, too.

Many people don't want to use their names; they're in the middle of the asylum process. But my wife and I spoke with a small group, who wore tee-shirts donated by charities, with logos from local bars, high schools, and also-ran sports teams. There have been reports of thefts and violence in the shelter, but residents on the street told us, "Life here is much quieter, much calmer, much safer, and that people respect them here. There are rules and laws."

The families said they want to work, and for their children to go to school, and to make new lives in the city. But it takes time for their applications to stay to be processed. Some local groups and elected officials complain that opening shelters has increased street crime in their neighborhoods, and deters residents and tourists. Police statistics say thefts, robberies, and assaults have increased, but not just in neighborhoods with shelters.

Yet to be in front of my childhood place reminded me how Chicago and other great cities had been built and energized by people who wanted to work and make better lives for their children. They came over fields, borders, and oceans to be here. I asked people who live in the old St. Clair if they knew who lives in room 12-M now.

"I'm on the 12th floor. I'm in number 22 on the 12th floor."

I feel like we're related!

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.