As El Paso struggled to cope with a historic humanitarian challenge in the fall and early winter, governments and churches converted their buildings into temporary shelters for migrants crossing the border.

But while the city, El Paso Independent School District and Catholic parishes created rent-free shelter space, El Paso Water charged the Rescue Mission of El Paso $10,000 a month to use one of its vacant buildings to house migrants.

El Paso Water CEO John Balliew said his agency has long had discussions about selling the property to the Rescue Mission and saw the lease as a step toward a sale.

“I don’t think that we were ever asked to do something temporary. We had been asked to work towards a permanent transfer and that’s what we were doing,” Balliew said.

But Blake Barrow, the chief executive director of the Rescue Mission, said he had paused plans to buy the El Paso Water property because the price tag was too high. The faith-based organization provides shelter and other services to people without homes or in need of other services.

Blake Barrow

He said he approached El Paso Water in October about using the facility as a temporary shelter for the growing number of migrants crossing the border into El Paso. By then, the Rescue Mission already was using all of its existing space to house migrants.

“We had a lot of migrants down at the Corner of Hope (supply center) at night. We also had at least 75 to 100 sleeping on the floors in the chapel, the library, down the halls of the Rescue Mission itself. So we desperately needed the water department building,” Barrow said. 

The Rescue Mission on Dec. 19 signed a 12-month lease, at $10,000 a month, for a building at 210 N. Lee St. that El Paso Water had vacated earlier in the year. The property, which has two buildings and some storage sheds, is adjacent to the Rescue Mission, 221 N. Lee St.

Barrow said the Rescue Mission has wanted to buy the El Paso Water property on North Lee Street since 2016, when it acquired its current location nearby as part of a deal with the water utility and the city of El Paso.

El Paso Water vacated this building this spring and got an appraisal of the property’s value at $1.9 million, more than double its value six years earlier, Barrow said. He decided to put off purchasing the property at that time.

As the number of migrants crossing the border grew sharply in September, U.S. immigration officials began dropping busloads of migrants at El Paso homeless shelters. Barrow turned to El Paso Water for help.

El Paso Water has leased its vacant field office to the Rescue Mission of El Paso, charging the nonprofit group $10,000 per month to use the space as a migrant shelter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Barrow said he proposed the $10,000 rate to El Paso Water based on previous conversations he had with the utility. Both he and Balliew said no one ever considered a rent-free deal.

“Frankly, I think what we’ve struck is a fair deal,” Barrow said.

Balliew said he’d need to do more research before he could determine if El Paso Water could temporarily provide its property rent-free during a crisis.

John Balliew

“We’ve never been asked to do that before. It’s never happened before. So I’d like to say that, yeah, I could do it, but I would probably want to at least go to the Public Service Board and get some official permission to do that,” he said.

Barrow rejected a suggestion that El Paso Water and its governing body, the Public Service Board, might be perceived as profiting from a community crisis.

“I don’t see it that way. The Public Service Board has land that, granted, it wasn’t doing any good before. As far as the size of their budget, $10,000 a month isn’t huge. I think the Public Service Board is doing things properly,” Barrow said

Barrow said the Rescue Mission’s $10,000 monthly lease payments should be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through March, as long as the building is used to house migrants.

The lease allows either party to cancel with three months notice. Barrow said it’s possible the Rescue Mission might have to make several $10,000 monthly lease payments without hope of FEMA reimbursement, but he’s not concerned.

“This is what we’re here for. I’m enjoying helping these people,” he said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.