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St. Paul’s College housing deal with feds on hold

By Jeremy M. Lazarus/Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press
On July 14, 2014
St. Paul's College

It seemed like a done deal. The federal government recently inked a five-month lease for the defunct Saint Paul’s College, enabling it to transform the campus into temporary housing for hundreds of unaccompanied, homeless Latino minors caught illegally entering the United States.

The Free Press has been told the agreement called for the government to pay between $90,000 and $100,000 a month to use the Historically Black School’s property located about 80 miles southwest of Richmond, Va., in Lawrenceville, the seat of Brunswick County. It seemed like a win-win deal -- the government would gain desperately-needed space to house the surging number of border-crossing minors from Central America, and the cash-strapped college would gain a desperately-needed infusion of funds to pay debts while still seeking a buyer for the property. However, instead of sending the first wave of youths to the school last week, the government suddenly hit the pause button on its plan to use the school.

The reason: A torrent of complaints from the White community and the area’s White congressman, Robert Hurt (R-Va.). In a show of goodwill, government representatives were scheduled to hold a public hearing on the project June 19, in Brunswick County, according to Kenneth J. Wolfe, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Congressman Hurt said that hearing is needed because he, like so many of his constituents, felt blindsided.

Saint Paul’s has long faced opposition or disdain from the White community in this poor rural tobacco area. The college dates to 1888 and was founded by Archdeacon James Solomon Russell to overcome barriers White supremacists had raised to the education of Black residents. The school closed last June after losing its accreditation. ACF, now scrambling to find space to house tens of thousands of youths pouring over the border, noted the closing and approached the school about using its space after the board of trustees put the campus up for sale.

According to the deal, up to 500 youths would beat the campus at any time. At least 200 staff would be on the campus to provide security and work with the youths to find relatives to sponsor them. The ACF planned to take care of the children’s needs, including providing food. The college’s only role would be to provide space. According to sources, college representatives laid out the project to top officials of the town and county.

The school was told that it had the zoning to undertake the project without any need to seek approval. College President Millard D. “Pete” Stith could not be reached for comment, but sources said county officials were thrilled about the project that could bring jobs and keep the campus from going completely dark. As Congressman Hurt well knows, the ACF has been mandated by Congress to take care of and place unaccompanied minors since 2002.

From then until 2011, the ACF’s Office of Refugee Resettlement handled about 8,000 youths a year. But the numbers have surged in the past three years, rising to 13,600 in 2012 and to 25,000 in 2013. This year, ACF estimates that it will serve 60,000 youths taken into custody at or near the border, mostly boys ages 14 to 17 and mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Saint Paul’s would be one of 100 sites the government has now opened to provide housing, including one in Staunton, said Wolfe.

Three military bases also are being used, he said, as the ACF copes with the influx. Figures from ACF show that 85 percent of the youths are placed with relatives within 35 days or reunited with their parents. ACF indicates that it places virtually all of the youths within 90 days of transfer.

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