Border Report

Migrant center transforms into homeless shelter at night; helping others remains No. 1 mission

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — In August 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation tour of South Texas that stopped at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, which at the time had over 600 asylum-seeking migrants crammed inside a building that once was a nightclub and bar.

Not long before that visit, the Trump administration had begun implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP) in South Texas, which forces asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they await their immigration court proceedings. The numbers at the center soon took a dive, and staff went from helping hundreds to maybe a dozen per day. It went from a noisy, frenetic facility to one where crickets could literally be heard chirping.

After weeks of sitting nearly empty, Sister Normal Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the facility, decided last winter to open it up to the local homeless as the first cold front settled in on the region.

Now it is a regular go-to place for many homeless, who come each night to enjoy a home-cooked dinner, restful sleep, and a morning meal after which they leave with freshly laundered clothes “and a sense of dignity and respect,” Pimentel said as she gave Border Report a tour recently.

Asylum seekers still occupy the facility, but usually, there are no more than 10 released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents per day. Sometimes, there are none. And those who are released usually include near-term pregnant women with small children who are not sent to family detention centers or across the Rio Grande to the tent encampment in Matamoros to wait out their immigration proceedings.

On Wednesday, Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf defended MPP in his State of the Homeland address saying the program “helps promote a safer and more orderly process along the Southwest border, discourages individuals from making meritless asylum claims, and enables expeditious immigration results.”

A Cuban woman who wished to remain unnamed is seen Sept. 4, 2020, holding her 10-day-old newborn who was born at a hospital in McAllen, Texas. She has been at the Humanitarian Respite Center since July after being released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection but said she has no family in the United States. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

In a separate dining room Friday night in the back of the Respite Center, a Cuban woman ate dinner holding her newborn. She has been at the Respite Center since July and was released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents prior to giving birth. She chatted with another woman from Cuba, Rosalyn, who is 8-months pregnant and arrived at the center just three hours prior. After one night at the center, she planned to take a bus to Florida in the morning to reunite with family.

Both said they were grateful for this facility, which provided them with a place to shower, new clothing, shoes, and where they felt safe during this coronavirus pandemic.

Some homeless people Border Report spoke with said the same thing: They were grateful for a clean and safe space to sleep during this COVID-19 pandemic, home-cooked meals prepared by local nonprofits and church groups, and welcoming smiles from the staff. They even get help finding a job and preparing their resume.

Isaac Gaona lost his job at a Wyoming hotel at the start of the pandemic and now sleeps nightly at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Isaac Gaona lost his job at a Wyoming hotel at the start of the pandemic. He is from Reynosa, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, but he ended up sleeping on the streets of McAllen until a few weeks ago when he found the Respite Center.

“It’s a good place to come when you don’t have anywhere to go. It’s a good environment and everyone is friendly since the first day.  Everybody is friendly and treats you correctly and right,” Gaona said as he enjoyed a meal of Mexican-style pork, mashed potatoes, rolls and a melon agua fresca.

Ofelia Pineda was the only woman to arrive on Friday evening among a dozen homeless men. She set up a blue cot in a private area in the middle of the room cordoned off by chairs and watched over by security guards. She said in Spanish that this is the best homeless shelter in McAllen. “I like it here. It’s the best place. Nothing is equal to this,” Pineda said. “I sleep here very well. I sleep very sound.”

Ofelia Pineda selects a blue cot to sleep on Sept. 4, 2020, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Pimentel said the transformation of the facility was approved by the Diocese of Brownsville and is an opportunity to mentor another sector of society.

“They sleep here at night and they rest and they’re able to be safe in a safe clean space,” she said. “I find our staff gives them back their dignity, as a person, especially the homeless because for some it’s the very first time in a long time that somebody has really paid attention and cared for them.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the RGV first opened the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, in 2014 and has helped over 150,000 migrants. The center, now located across from the city’s bus station, now is open to homeless people who sleep there overnight. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Pimentel is familiar with helping people and striving to restore dignity. She also runs “Dignity Village,” the name given to the tent encampment where 600 migrants live in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, as they await their immigration proceedings.

The respite center currently is in its fourth location since she first opened the center in 2014 to accommodate a sudden upswing in asylum-seeking families, mostly women and children, coming from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The building can hold up to 1,200 people. Friday, there were only a dozen homeless. The day before there were 27, she said.

“This wonderful beautiful building we can transform many ways,” she said before she led the group in prayer as they served the evening meal.

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