This article has been updated.
The last unaccompanied migrant boys left the Bexar County Freeman Coliseum on Monday ahead of the Sunday lease end date between the county and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The Freeman Coliseum, owned by Bexar County, had been used by HHS as an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors since the end of March. HHS leased the space from the county as the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States from the southern border rose dramatically. At its peak capacity, the Coliseum housed 2,010 boys aged 13 to 17, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
A news release from the county stated the “vast majority of children were unified with their sponsor and/or family.” About 70% of the boys who passed through the Freeman Coliseum were ultimately reunited with family or a sponsor, while the remaining 30% went to other licensed shelters throughout the United States, Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) said during a news briefing Monday.
Before they left, Clay-Flores and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff bade the remaining migrant teens farewell. Three boys left the facility at 2 a.m. on Monday, while the last two left at 8:30 a.m., Clay-Flores said.
“They wished them good luck on their journey and in their futures,” a news release said. “One of the boys gifted Judge Wolff with a handmade drawing to thank him for the kindness shown to him and his fellow travelers.”
The drawing was of a rising sun, Wolff said in Monday’s news briefing.
“To me, that was a symbol of what this young boy was really hoping would happen in his life – the sun finally emerging,” Wolff said.
There is no final number for how much operating the Coliseum as an emergency shelter cost, but county officials said in March that the federal government would be footing all costs except for a few expenses such as tables and chairs, draping to divide the Coliseum’s expo hall into three sections, and entertainment options for the migrant youth. Derrick Howard, the executive director of the Freeman Coliseum, estimated in March that while upfront costs would be around $20,000, those expenses would be reimbursed by the federal government.
The facility was thrust into the spotlight in April when Gov. Greg Abbott held a news conference there about abuse and neglect allegations he said state agencies received about the emergency shelter. After being briefed on an investigation into the allegations, Wolff said later that month that the allegations were “completely false.”
“That was a trumped up charge to begin with,” Wolff said Monday. “There really isn’t any other investigation going on now … as far as all the kids are, they’re off to a safe environment.”
More than 2,000 people volunteered at the Coliseum while it held unaccompanied migrant minors, Wolff said. One was Clay-Flores, who volunteered with her church. She said she spent the last few days of the shelter’s operations at the Coliseum because she was “committed to see the very last boy off.” As a volunteer, she helped facilitate church services and interacted with many of the teens that way.
“One of the kids laughed and he said, ‘I’m always gonna remember your voice and your hair,'” she said. “And I just thought that was pretty hilarious. There are lots of memorable things that the kids shared, but I thought that was pretty funny.”
All the boys who resided at the shelter were tested for the coronavirus before entering, and those who tested positive stayed in an area separate from the rest of the group, officials said. On May 17, there were a total of 617 boys held at the Coliseum, spokeswoman Monica Ramos said. She did not have more recent figures on Monday. The lease technically ends May 30, giving HHS officials time to fully vacate the facility.
“The contract did not terminate early,” Clay-Flores said. “… It was intentional to make sure that the last kids were out a week before, so that now the contractors can break [the facility] down. So we are on target.”