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Houston officials say detention center needs proper permits

2 Aug

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston officials on Wednesday pushed back on claims that a detention facility being proposed in the city to house unaccompanied immigrant children is close to opening.

The facility would house about 200 unaccompanied minors at a building that had previously been used as a homeless shelter and a temporary shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees.

The proposed facility has been opposed by local officials and community leaders, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, since plans for it were first made public in June. When it was first announced, the facility was set to house children who had been separated from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents has since been stopped.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia sent a tweet saying she’d been told by an attorney for the nonprofit proposing the facility that it could open this week if it passes state inspection.

But at a news conference Wednesday, Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Peña and other officials said the facility doesn’t have the proper permits from the city.

A city permit had initially been issued to Southwest Key, an Austin-based nonprofit, to operate a shelter where individuals would be able to come in and out, Peña said. But local officials have since learned that the intended use of the facility has changed from sheltering children to detaining them, meaning Southwest Key will have to apply for a new permit, Peña said.

“We communicated this to Southwest Key on several occasions about the need to change the facility use,” he said. “As it stands now, the current (permit) will not be sufficient to house” the children.

Patrick Key, an assistant director with the Houston Health Department, said Southwest Key has also not requested a city permit to serve food at the facility.

Houston officials say the different city permits need to be issued before the facility can open.

In a statement, Southwest Key officials said they were “reviewing the comments by city officials and continue to talk with the state about licensing.” Southwest spokesman Jeff Eller said the nonprofit would not be making any additional comment on the status of the facility.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said Wednesday that the application for a state permit for the facility is still being evaluated.