North Philly neighbors decry plans for immigrant youth shelter, citing track record

Marion Johnson, active in the community for close to 40 years, goes in a head to head with a representative of VisionQuest during a community gathering hosted by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, on Thursday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Marion Johnson, active in the community for close to 40 years, goes in a head to head with a representative of VisionQuest during a community gathering hosted by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, on Thursday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

A meeting about zoning for a proposed 60-bed unaccompanied immigrant youth shelter in North Philadelphia drew heated commentary Tuesday night.

While ostensibly about a permitting question, more than 150 community members, immigration activists, and VisionQuest staff passionately debated the service provider’s past performance and value to the area over the course of four hours.

VisionQuest previously operated a residential youth center in the same location at 5201 Old York Road, but it closed in 2017 after documented instances of staff hurting and demeaning children.

“The only thing I get from VisionQuest … are horror stories,” said Sister Taleah Taylor, president and founder of the City of Dreams Coalition. “What’s going to change? Now we’re going to bring kids in from Mexico, and the ones that get caught at the border, and let them get abused?”

Last year, VisionQuest contracted with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide housing and care for 60 undocumented teenage boys who arrive at the U.S. border alone, until they can be released to family members.

During a presentation Wednesday night, the company’s management described the facility in detail and touted the economic benefit of reopening the shelter, including hiring more than 100 people. More than 60 are already in training.

“We are going to be responsive, we are going to be accountable, and I want you to hold us accountable,” said James Smith, director of the renamed VisionQuest Grace Dix Center. Dozens of VisionQuest’s new hires formed a cheering section on the left side of the room.

“I’ve dedicated my life to helping children,” said staffer Darren Henao, tearing up. “I can assure you from the bottom of my heart, what happened in the past won’t happen in this program.”

A VisonQuest employee tears up as community members raise various questions and concerns addressed to a panel of representatives of VisionQuest during a marathon meeting about proposed plans for a program to house unaccompanied immigrant youth, on Thursday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Ken MacBain, a neighborhood resident and member of the Logan Civic Association said the promises sounded familiar

“Nine years ago, VisionQuest came in and told us the same vision … I’m not going to be so easily fooled,” he said.

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a violation notice in January, blocking the provider from opening “by right,” or without special zoning approval. VisionQuest appealed that decision, prompting a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment last week.

Following that hearing, City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker agreed to host the community gathering at the board’s behest. She said she believed a shelter for immigrant youth would be “new territory” and should require a variance or other exception. The board has not yet voted on whether to allow the center to move ahead or to require it to go through an additional zoning process.

The area is currently zoned RSA-2, which stands for “residential single-family attached.” Institutional uses, such as family daycares, hospitals, or group living homes, require special exception approval under this category.

VisionQuest’s leaders said they believed they should already be allowed to start operating at the Logan Plaza location. President Mark Contento also acknowledged the company’s previous iteration had struggled at the end of its 35 years of working in Philadelphia, but that the city “must have felt comfortable” with the company even as it closed the facility.

Mark Contento, President of Arizona based VisionQuest speaks during an introduction at a meeting with members of the community to react to questions and concerns about the plans for a housing program for unaccompanied immigrant youth at 5201 N. Broad St. The event, hosted by 9th District Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, went well into the night on Thursday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, called that a mischaracterization.

“We closed intake because we realized it wasn’t safe to send any more kids here … I can only speak to the experience with the organization that I had, which is not one I want to repeat,” she said.

Before the city shut down the shelter in 2017, Pennsylvania state inspectors found some VisionQuest staff had abused children physically and emotionally, including one incident in which a staffer choked and slapped a youth, and two staffers who frequently cursed at the children and called them “nothing,” according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

VisionQuest has applied for a child residential facility license from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, but has not yet received a decision. The company has annual revenues of more than $50 million and works with more than 2,000 youth a year across six states, according to Contento’s LinkedIn page.

In 2018, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 54,000 unaccompanied children trying to enter the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. That does not include minors separated from family they traveled with.

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