VisionQuest appeals zoning decision blocking its undocumented youth facility

Cherri Gregg
April 09, 2019 - 4:43 pm
Located inside of Logan Plaza on Old York Road, The Grace Dix Center will provide temporary residential housing and services for to up to 60 migrant youth between ages 13 and 17.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment denied an Arizona-based company's effort to open up a North Philadelphia housing facility for undocumented minors from the U.S. Border.

The group is not giving up.

"Our next step, we have filed an appeal," said James Smith, program director for VisionQuest's Grace Dix Center at 5201 Old York Road.

Related: Dozens of kids who crossed southern border illegally to be housed at North Philly facility

Earlier this year, VisionQuest announced that it secured a three year, $3.6 million federal contract to house up to 60 unaccompanied, undocumented boys age 12 to 17. The company then spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the space with beds, building a recreational space, counseling rooms and other facilities. 

They also hired dozens of staff to run the place, with the goal of a 1-to-4 staff-to-resident ration. But as of Friday, the effort remains on semi-hold after the zoning board denied VisionQuest's request for a variance so that it could execute its plan.

"I was somewhat surprised, probably because we wanted it to go favorable and go forward," said Smith, "but the staff is still working diligently in preparation to receive young people if we do receive the variance on appeal. After all, preparation is key."

Smith admits that VisionQuest's past is what has led to major opposition. 

Last month, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker hosted a community meeting in her district to discuss the facility and neighbors expressed major opposition. In 2017, the same facility was shut down after an investigation reported that staffers had abused children on multiple occasions. Smith, who relocated from Texas says, this new program is very different.

"New staff, new model, new funding. All those things in place definitely lead to a much better outcome," he said.  

"It's really hard for community to trust an agency like this," said Miguel Andrade of Juntos, a grassroots immigrant rights organization that has opposed the facility from the brginning. He says given VisionQuest's record, they will also oppose any appeals. 

"We are cautiously optimistic, but we are prepared and ready to fight back," Andrade said.

Juntos as an organization has worked to oppose the Berks County Detention Center and is against any detention of migrants who cross the border illegally.

"We do not believe that they should be detained for trying to achieve a better life," said Andrade. 

"I am pleased that the Zoning Board of Adjustment determined that the proposed use for the property requires a new zoning permit as the impact of the proposal on the neighbors is unclear and should be vetted through the RCO process. My position all along is that the community deserves a say given the nature of the proposed development," said Parker. 

VisionQuest says for now, the 67 member staff will remained employed and they will continue to prepare for the youth migrants in the event the company wins on appeal.  

If they lose, Smith says, they will evaluate their position at the time.