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Transitional home located next to school must move

Ana O’Neill has been an educator for 43 years and came out of retirement to head Our Lady of the Valley Catholic School less than a month ago as interim principal.

She has been wanting to make some changes and on Wednesday morning, one of those changes was realized.

Winchester House, a transitional living facility, will have to move.

When Winchester House moved next door to the school in December of last year nobody could foresee the complaints that were to come.

Winchester House is a transitional living facility, housing 15 men from 18 to 25-years-old. They all qualify as homeless by HUD’s definition.

The men are former foster-home kids, who have aged out of the program once they turned 18.

The men live at the home and learn life skills: maintaining a check book, learning a trade, completing their educations.

The home is run by El Paso Human Services, and is funded by federal, state and municipal grants.

A chain-link fence is all that separates Winchester House from the 238-student Catholic school.

Parents and teachers started getting worried about the decision for the home to take root in the neighborhood after US Marshals and Homeland Security swarmed the house a few months ago, forcing the school to go on lockdown.

Principal O’Neil says she regularly finds herself picking up beer cans thrown onto the school yard from over the fence.

One parent even said that one of the residents of the home started talking to a female student, asking if she “wanted to come over and pet his dog.”

Susana Reza, EPHS Executive Director, says it is a misunderstanding. She says the young men have been misunderstood and are now being marginalized again, as they have been their entire foster-home lives.

Reza says these are young-adult men who are acting as such.

“They are not in compliance with the city code,” O’Neill said. “They’re not supposed to have public offenders next to a school or a church.”

Reza says they perform background checks on their residents before they come into the home, though she admits their checks are not fail proof.

Reza says the men may have traffic warrants but no felony convictions.

Reza says the incident involving the federal agents had to do with a resident who was no longer living at the facility.

Winchester House is moving because they are in violation of city codes having to do with the building they are renting, Reza says.

Reza says they initially chose the building as a transitional living facility because it met the needs of a dormitory-like setting, located in a neighborhood environment.

There is city zoning requirement which applies to a transitional living facility.

Winchester House had been included in the “boarding house” zoning requirement, but it is not a boarding house because the residents are not paying rent to live there.

EPHS representatives went to city hall to petition city council for a specialized designation for a transitional living facility, but the item was deleted from the council agenda.

“We tried to stay in the neighborhood, because the guys were doing well there,” Reza said. “They have been calling it their home for quite some time.”

Reza does not know where the men will end up now.

“It feels great, it really does,” O’Neill said. “Because we have to keep children safe and what’s so bad about this situation is that what divided us from that house and our playground was just one wire fence.”

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