The El Paso City Council voted unanimously on Monday to move forward with a plan to purchase a Westside middle school and convert the property as an emergency center to house migrants and as an animal shelter.

City officials said they will be using federal funds to buy Morehead Middle School from the El Paso Independent School District for $3.8 million. The city plans to rent the property from the district for $23,500 a month until the sale is complete.

The decision comes as local shelters are overwhelmed with asylum seekers needing a place to stay after being processed and released by U.S. Border Patrol. El Paso sector Border Patrol agents have recently encountered nearly 2,000 migrants a day, releasing up to 8,000 migrants a week to area shelters, the county’s migrant center and to the city, which had been putting migrants up in hotels before opening up a temporary shelter at Nations-Tobin Recreation Center this weekend.

Mayor Oscar Leeser says that the city’s purchase of the Morehead Middle School property will allow El Paso to treat asylum seekers with dignity while lowering the overall costs and logistics involved in sheltering people during migration surges. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city will begin making room for an estimated 400 to 500 people in the school’s gym in the next few days. This would allow the city to reopen the Nations Tobin Recreation Center to the general public. 

“Leaving (asylum seekers) on the street is not an option for us. We have got to make sure we treat people with dignity and respect and we’ve been working really hard to make sure there’s no street releases,” Leeser said during the meeting.

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted on Sept. 19 to approve the sale of Morehead to the city.

The El Paso City Council approved the purchase of El Paso Independent School District’s Morehead Middle School on Monday, which could be converted into a shelter for migrants. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

City officials said part of the property would be turned into an animal services shelter with a public dog park, and another part would be turned into an emergency operations center that could be used to temporarily house migrants or citizens affected by disasters.

Leeser said the city would help migrants get transportation from the shelter to their final destinations throughout the United States, as long as they remain in a facility and stay in the shelter system. 

“They’re free to leave but just kind of cannot come in again if they do leave,” Leeser said about migrants who choose to leave the shelter system.

City officials noted that they plan to utilize the property’s existing amenities including a kitchen, bathrooms, offices, large open spaces, a playground and classrooms that could be turned into living spaces.

In the coming months, city officials said they will begin assessing the property’s five buildings to see what kind of upgrades they will need and determine how many people and animals the two facilities will be able to house.

City Representative Chris Canales, whose district includes the Morehead Middle School site, speaks in favor of the city’s purchase to provide shelter space during a city council meeting on Monday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“The intent is to use it for families with children. Because it’s laid out as a school, we have classrooms that we can convert into spaces for either one or a small handful of families to have semi-private spaces,” said city Rep.  Chris Canales, whose district includes Morehead.

Leeser has suggested introducing a program that allows migrants staying at the shelter to interact with the pets staying with Animal Services.

Ron Comeau, who runs Lucy’s Dream Animal Rescue and has worked with Animal Services in the past, told El Paso Matters he has some ideas on how the program could work and how it could be beneficial for those involved.

“Petting a dog and spending time with a dog, or a cat, relieves anxieties in both the strays and in people,” Comeau said.

The rescue leader said Animal Services would need to build enclosed areas where people can walk dogs or potentially play with them off-leash. Shelter workers would also need to assess the animals’ temperament and ensure they are ready to be around people.

Comeau spoke in support of the city’s plan during EPISD’s meeting last week and again at Monday’s City Council meeting. He said El Paso Animal Services and local rescues have been overwhelmed with strays in recent years and have been struggling to keep up.

El Paso resident Ron Comeau provides the sole public comment on the city’s purchase of Morehead Middle School, thanking the City Council for providing solutions to the challenges of shelter for both people and animals in need. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The city is currently housing a number of animals in what used to be the El Paso Times printing room in the back of City Hall.

Commercial Realtor David Etzold told El Paso Matters the sale sounded like a good plan for the Morehead property.

Though the nearly 19-acre property runs along Mesa Street, one of the busiest streets in El Paso, Etzold said it is not appealing to commercial investors.

“You don’t have particularly good commercial frontage. You’d have to have a two-story building even to start getting any attention in that hole that it sits in. Then you have the rough terrain. Generally, you need flat or flatter areas for commercial development, especially retail,” Etzold said.

Etzold noted that the neighborhood has already been saturated with commercial space that in some cases has gone unused.

Claudia Silva was born and raised in El Paso and studied journalism at New Mexico State University. She's covered a number of topics, from education to arts and culture, in both Texas and New Mexico.