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Photos: Shelter for asylum-seekers planned for empty county juvenile center

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A view of one of three outer yards that will be part of migrant shelter operated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona during media tour on Wednesday, July 17. - Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

In a spartan, empty concrete yard hemmed in by block walls, Catholic Community Services' Teresa Cavendish sees a space that can be made "light and airy" with a community effort, as members of the press toured an unused section of the Juvenile Detention Center that is slated to become a transitional shelter for newly released asylum-seekers. 

CCS's Cavendish and Diego Piña-Lopez led a media tour of three "wings" of the unused detention center this week, just days before the Pima County Board of Supervisors votes on the plan, which has aroused controversy both in Tucson and across the nation as advocates worry whether the use of the facility will further "traumatize" families after their release from federal immigration detention centers. 

Along with the tour of the juvenile facility, Cavendish and Piña-Lopez also led a tour of the Benedictine Monastery, which has served as a temporary way-point for nearly 10,000 people released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the last several months. 

Outside the monastery, Cavendish and Piña-Lopez spoke in front of the portable toilets and showers that have become necessary, as the building constructed in 1940 has begun to crumble. Inside, the bathrooms and shower areas had been sealed with plywood and red tape, and there were signs of ceiling damage after a shower drain plugged up and began to leak. 

The six-acre site was bought by Russ Rulney last year from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who relocated to Missouri, and in January the new owner offered to let CCS use the site until Aug. 6. 

Cavendish said that the nearly 80-year-old building was "never designed" for the kind of wear-and-tear and the plumbing was not able to hold up to the demand, even after the group spent about $20,000 in an attempt to maintain the system. 

"There's not much dignity" in using a portable toilet when it's 109 degrees, she said. 

"We knew from the beginning that it would be hard to leave the monastery," Cavendish said, "but we knew if was going to be temporary," she said. 

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While the juvenile center "looks entirely" different, "the challenge is to recreate and offer the same feeling" as the monastery shelter has provided. 

Piña-Lopez said that from the beginning the group used gymnasiums and rented out rooms at hotels in Tucson's Southside. "We've had to be innovative this whole time; we will continue to be." 

At the juvenile center Cavendish outlined an audacious plan that will require renovating the building before August 6, when the group must leave the monastery. This will include deep cleaning, adding carpet, and decorating the walls with mosaics or murals. Construction was anticipated to be done by the end of the month, she said. 

"When they come through those doors, they're going to see in here is a working area," that will be used for intake, medical evaluations, and other tasks, as part of "receiving our community," she said. 

In a yard, hemmed in by high block walls, Cavendish said they would remove a lone basketball court, and then punch a hole in one wall to create an entry area. She said she also wanted to install planters so that the concrete area would resemble a "roof top garden." 

"You can see it's light and it's airy," she said, adding that they would be working on options to make the space "beautiful," including murals and tile work. 

Inside, Cavendish said that all the video camera surveillance systems had been disabled, and that the lenses of the cameras would be covered. 

"All the locks had been removed, and all the camera systems disabled," she said. However, the camera systems will not be removed. She also said that they were still decided whether to remove or hide the stainless steel sinks and toilets that were in some cells. 

She also noted that families staying at the monastery have always had the option to stay or go, and they will have the same option at the juvenile center. County officials also said that asylum seekers would have the option to go outside, and even wander the Loop, a network of shared pathways that surround Tucson, that swings close to the north end of the building. 

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