VisionQuest sues Philly over ‘discriminatory’ immigrant youth shelter decision

Several VisionQuest employees are seen departing in small groups from the North Broad Streetlocation to join other employees and members of the community at a March 2019 meeting at the nearby Old York House. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Several VisionQuest employees are seen departing in small groups from the North Broad Streetlocation to join other employees and members of the community at a March 2019 meeting at the nearby Old York House. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

A for-profit provider of children and youth social services has accused Philadelphia of discriminating against Latinos for its decision to block the opening of a shelter for 60 unaccompanied immigrant minors.

A federal civil rights complaint filed last week marks an escalation in the ongoing battle between VisionQuest and local officials over the use of a building located on Old York Road in North Philadelphia.

In January, Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a violation notice, requiring VisionQuest to receive a new permit before it could open an immigrant youth center on the property. The company appealed that decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustments, arguing that because it had previously run a shelter for U.S.-born teenagers in the same building, no new permit was necessary.

Earlier this month, the ZBA sided with the city.

In court documents filed to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., VisionQuest alleged that decision was based on “the impermissible and discriminatory purpose of excluding Latino children originating in Central America from obtaining temporary housing in the Facility within the City of Philadelphia.” Both the city and the ZBA are named defendants in the case.

Attorneys for VisionQuest requested monetary damages and a court injunction allowing the shelter to open.

VisionQuest has also appealed the zoning board’s denial to Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas and requested an injunction to allow the shelter to open while the case proceeds.

In response to the lawsuits, city spokesman Mike Dunn provided the following statement: “The City is confident that the violation issued against VisionQuest was appropriate, and applauds the Zoning Board for independently upholding the violation. The property owner and VisionQuest have exercised their right to appeal that decision to the Court of Common Pleas through a Local Agency Appeal. This is the appropriate forum for them to make their case that the Department and the Board were incorrect.”

More than a building

Between January and March of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 35,898 minors traveling alone to the southwest border, a jump of more than 60 percent over the same period in 2018. Since October, VisionQuest has contracted with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to house teenage boys in Philadelphia. Management had expected to start placing children in the Old York Road facility in February, amid that spike in arrivals.

In each court filing, lawyers for the Arizona-based company contrast their client’s empty building in North Philadelphia to the unmet needs of unaccompanied youth arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is kind of a crisis situation with kids penned up under bridges in El Paso… so hopefully we can resolve it with the city and get these kids in safe housing,” said attorney Kenneth McCallion, who represents VisionQuest in federal court.

Children often arrive at ORR-designated shelters after spending time in temporary facilities along the border, which are not necessarily set up to meet the needs of minors.

“There is nothing discriminatory about denying a for-profit company from detaining young immigrant children,” said Miguel Andrade, communications director of Juntos, a community organization for Latino immigrants, which has picketed VisionQuest’s building.

“There should be no detention in a sanctuary city,” Andrade said.

During a community meeting in March, several speakers echoed that charge. Neighbors also criticized VisionQuest for letting youth at its old center run amok in the neighborhood, and for its mixed track record on childcare. The center closed in 2017 following documented instances of verbal and physical abuse of children by staff.

Read the complaint below:

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