As Catholic Community Services prepares to cease operations at the Benedictine Monastery, the staff and volunteers are pressed for time to secure a new space to serve the hundreds of asylum seekers released into the Tucson area by Customs and Border Patrol on a regular basis.
The organization has been housing and caring for asylum seekers, who mostly come from Central American countries, in two small shelters since 2014. In January, they set up a larger shelter operation inside the Benedictine Monastery in order to accommodate for the increase in asylum seekers that have been released from CBP custody into the community while their asylum cases are being processed.
Every day, CCS receives information from federal officials about the number of arriving asylum seekers. They will determine the room availability within the monastery and then greet asylum seekers when they arrive and explain that they are not part of the immigration system.
The staff and volunteers provide their guests with food and information about their next steps, then administer medical screenings and intake interviews. The asylum seekers are assigned a place to stay and are given a tour of the facility, then provided with clothes.
CCS will then help their guests call their sponsors or family and help them confirm their travel plans. The volunteers will coordinate transportation to the bus station or airport and arrange for food and travel supplies. They help the asylum seekers understand the travel plans and then drive them to the airport or bus station where they’ll wait with their guests until they leave.
Teresa Cavendish, director of operations at CCS, said they used to see around 20 to 50 guests daily, but in recent months have seen at least 200, if not more. The staff is often notified of new arrivals just hours before CBP drops them off.
In response to the sharp increase in asylum seekers, Ross Rulney, the owner of the Benedictine Monastery, allowed CCS to operate a temporary shelter there before the historic building closes its doors for construction.
The closure is coming up on Tuesday, Aug. 6.
The CCS team has determined that three empty wings within Pima County’s Juvenile Justice Complex would be their best option for relocation.
The monastery has experienced significant wear and tear in the seven months that it has served as a shelter. It just isn’t built to accommodate heavy use that a large number of guests have put on it overtime.
Cavendish said that after spending nearly $20,000 on repairs, they gave up on the weak plumbing about a month and a half ago. Instead, they have resorted to portable showers and restrooms that are located just outside the building. Inside, there are open holes in the ceilings of rooms where pipes gave out.
“That’s a huge challenge for us when you have large bodies of people,” Cavendish said. “And also it’s not the level of respect and caring and dignity that we really want to offer to our guests who are with us."
"There’s not much dignified about using a Porta-John in 109-degree heat here in Tucson.”
With these experiences in mind, CCS looked for a new shelter facility that could handle large amounts of daily use and comfortably house between 200 to 300 people. They also need a place that is move-in ready and is centrally located to reduce commute times for volunteers, as well as in close proximity to transportation hubs such as the Tucson International Airport and the Greyhound Bus Station on the edge of downtown.
After looking at over 25 places, they decided the former juvenile detention center was the best choice because it has industrial-level facilities for laundry, food and other necessities.
“We looked at abandoned hospitals, we looked at higher education facilities, we looked at a lot of commercial spaces, we did hire commercial real estate agents to assist us in this process,” Cavendish said.
The county plans to perform minor renovations to transform the former detention center into an accommodating humanitarian shelter. They have already disabled all the locks and security cameras within that portion of the facility. Cavendish said the staff, volunteers and guests will never interact with the other parts of the detention center which currently incarcerates juveniles. The asylum seekers will be allowed to move freely throughout the shelter area.
CCS plans to include murals, carpets, couches, curtains, comfortable beds, recreational items and many more things they believe will make the space a welcoming and calm environment.
Many community members have expressed alarm at the news of moving asylum seekers into this facility, since they just came from CBP custody which has a documented history of abusing asylum seekers in detention.
A petition that demands county officials and CCS find a different shelter location has over 500 signatures and counting.
They believe that no amount of renovations can change the fact that the facility is a detention center.
There was even a strong push last weekend to abandon the ongoing preparations for the Juvenile Justice Complex and instead utilize portions of two vacant Tucson Unified School District schools. CCS looked into that option and did not believe it was a suitable place for their guests.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors will hold a special meeting on Monday, July 22 to publicly discuss and potentially vote to approve an agreement with CCS so they can occupy the former detention center for $100 per month. A significant opposition is expected to attend.
“I think the county did a poor job of rolling it out to the community,” Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías told Tucson Weekly. “And had they had more facets of the community involved in the whole thing, then perhaps people wouldn’t have been so unsure about what we were doing and so negative about it, or worried so much about the ugly optics that surround it.”
Elías, who was originally against using the county facility and supported using the two TUSD schools, said he hopes the other supervisors will be supportive in making sure asylum seekers have an adequate space to stay.
With just two weeks between the day the supervisors are expected to vote and the day that CCS must vacate the monastery, Cavendish said the staff and volunteers are under immense pressure, but are optimistic that the supervisors will vote yes, because right now, there is no other option.
“That is the hope, because we have no plan B,” Cavendish said.
CCS expects to utilize their other two smaller facilities to assist with the transition from the monastery to the county facility. Once they are inside the new space, they plan to adjust based on the preferences of the guests who stay there.
Cavendish said the toilets within each room will either be left as is if the guests staying there want their own private toilet, or they can be covered and converted to additional seating that doesn’t resemble a toilet. They will have the option to close the doors on their room, or the door can be left open while a privacy curtain hangs on the inside of the door frame. The county is also installing individual light switches for each room.
“This is not a center where they can’t control their own environment,” Cavendish said. “We want to make sure that we’re having things that are comfortable, respectful and secure for the guests who are in that space.”