Amid fight over nonprofit’s center for migrant kids, Houston inspects its other facilities

August 8, 2018

Amid a fight over whether a facility that would house migrant children has satisfied the code requirements necessary to open east of downtown, Houston inspectors have begun visiting existing centers run by the same nonprofit.

Austin-based Southwest Key Programs said last week it had all but one of the permits it needs to open a proposed facility for children who illegally cross the country’s southern border. City officials dispute that claim, saying the company must begin the permitting process again because two “residential” permits the nonprofit holds were granted based on incomplete information that did not adequately describe the proposed “institutional” use of the building.

Fire Chief Sam Pena last Thursday sent inspectors to the three existing facilities Southwest Key runs “in an effort to ensure that other facilities permitted by your company have not been occupied under similarly incorrect permits,” he and Houston Building Official Mark Savasta wrote in a follow-up letter to Southwest Key last Friday.

The inspectors were stopped in the lobby at each facility, however, which Pena and Savasta said is not in keeping with city ordinances that allow inspectors to access buildings “at reasonable times” to ensure compliance with building and fire codes.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said Wednesday that fire inspectors were allowed to enter one of the facilities on Tuesday and expect to begin inspecting the other two sites Wednesday. It is unclear whether Tuesday’s visit identified any violations.

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Jeff Eller, a Southwest Key spokesman, had said last week that the nonprofit operates two shelters for unaccompanied minors under residential permits, though those are licensed to hold children older than those the Emancipation facility would house. A third Southwest Key facility housing children in the same age range has an institutional license because it is a re-purposed hospital, Eller said. Its original permits were institutional, and he said the organization decided not to change them.

Southwest Key, which runs more than two dozen such migrant child care facilities in Texas, Arizona and California, found itself at the center of a national firestorm in June when it emerged that the group proposed to hold 240 immigrant children between the ages of “0 to 17” at a building it had leased at 419 Emancipation Ave.

When news of the proposed facility became public at the height of the furor over family separations at the border, Turner rallied numerous nonprofit, religious and political leaders to denounce the “unjust and immoral policy,” and indicated he would be happy to slow-walk the city permits required to open the facility.



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