PHOENIX — An international refugee organization and local nonprofit groups Wednesday announced they're converting an old elementary school in south Phoenix into a shelter with sleeping space for 277 members of migrant families, many of them asylum seekers.
The shelter known as the Welcome Center was once the Ann Ott Elementary School, which closed more than a decade ago. Starting next week, the shelter have capacity for about 80 adults and children on new cots arranged in what once served as an auditorium, said Beth Strano, who coordinates programs for asylum seekers and families with the International Rescue Committee of Arizona.
She said 277 will be able to sleep there by summer's end. Strano said most immigrants will stay just 24 to 48 hours, "while we get them on their way."
The nonprofit groups Phoenix Restoration Project and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest are also involved. Currently, immigrant families released from custody in Phoenix are housed by churches and other groups for a night or two before they travel to relatives in other cities.
When there aren't enough beds available, overwhelmed immigration officials sometimes drop immigrants off at the local Greyhound bus station to figure out their travel.
"This is a problem and it needs to be fixed," said local pastor Israel Camacho back in March of 2019. His church scrambled during the spring months to provide meals, clothing and a place to stay for the hundreds of migrants dropped off on a daily basis.
"Every day we organize and transport not only the over-the-counter medications, but all the medical supplies needed for triage and assessment for emergencies. They are coming in vulnerable and exhausted, many suffer from stomach issues, their diet on their way is not the best and when they get here they often have stomach issues," said Cecilia Garcia from the non-profit 100 Angels.
Garcia will be helping asylum seekers staying at the Welcome Center and those staying at various churches throughout the Valley. "We started this non-profit in 2018 and since then we have seen almost 13,000 asylum seekers through June 30, 2019," said Garcia.
"Our goal is that no one again will be dropped off at the station," Strano said. She said immigrants will have their meals prepared by the Catholic charity Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Volunteers will provide legal advice and help immigrants contact U.S. relatives and travel to them while their cases are heard.
There will also be space for children to play, both inside former classrooms and outside on a playground and grassy field when summer temperatures cool.
"I hope that families will feel comfortable here, will feel like they can breathe," said Phoenix Restoration Project volunteer Leah Sarat. Shelter Manager Uriel Gonzalez said the hope is that "the community will come together behind the project and become involved."
The Phoenix community has really actually risen to support and protect these families and plug-in in any way they can to help out," said Strano.
The IRC is accepting donations of all types. For a complete list of the items needed, you can visit their website.