The City of San Antonio’s Zoning Commission voted 8-3 Tuesday evening to reject a company’s request that would allow it to operate a migrant youth shelter out of an Eastside church’s community center.

The Zoning Commission’s recommendation will be considered by City Council, which will make the final decision during a meeting slated for Dec. 5. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), who represents the East Side, are opposed to the zoning change.

The vote came after two hours of passionate testimony from Second Baptist Church leaders, community members, and migrant activists – then another two hours of questions and comments from commissioners. The church wants to lease the facility to “continue its mission” to help migrant children, leaders said, and the church has threatened to sue the City. The church wants to lease the facility to Arizona-based VisionQuest, which contracts with the federal government to operate shelters for migrants.

While the request was shrouded by attention on national immigration policies and for-profit companies housing migrants, the commission – and ultimately Council – is charged with reviewing the case based on the nature and type of uses that will occur in the zoning area and how it fits in within current conditions and future plans for the surrounding community.

The nature of the use, to temporarily house boys aged 11 to 17 who entered the United States unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, doesn’t fit within plans for economic development in the area, said Commissioner Summer Greathouse (D1).

“I believe that the … current zoning is more appropriate,” Greathouse said. “[It is] trying to bring in retail and other entertainment-based uses and I don’t believe that a human services campus aligns with that.”

The historically-neglected East Side area is trying to build up economic opportunities and commercial efforts that benefit the community, she said. “Just as it’s trying to gain some traction … I’m uncomfortable taking a left turn.”

The proposed facility – which includes a bowling alley, basketball court, and other amenities – would not be accessible to the broader community, Renee Watson, who lives near the church, said after the meeting. The shelter would require that the outdoor area behind the center be fenced in.

Second Baptist Church is located off of Commerce Street on the East Side of San Antonio.

“It doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood,” Watson said. “We’ve been working for a long time to do economic development [and] regeneration.”

The zoning request – technically changing from an “Arts and Entertainment” designation to a “commercial” designation with conditional use for a human services campus – would allow the church to increase its current occupancy limit for its community center from 19 to 90. VisionQuest signed a $3.2 million preliminary lease with the church, located at 3310 East Commerce St., which would convert the 44,500-square-foot center into a shelter.

The “human services campus” use typically applies to properties that have several structures on them, said James McKnight, a land-use attorney representing VisionQuest and the church. “In our case, we are limiting all that to one structure” so the intensity of the use is reduced.

The City’s Development Services Department (DSD) staff recommended denial of VisionQuest’s request but was in favor of a homelessness housing facility that was also located adjacent to a neighborhood, McKnight noted. “[And] we have a more appropriate commercial location.”

Catherine Hernandez, a DSD administrator, explained that there wasn’t a sufficient buffer of land between the church’s facility and the neighborhoods. While the church owns some adjacent empty lots, the alley that separates the facility property from single-family residents is too small, Hernandez said. The homelessness housing case had a highway and full street between it and surrounding neighborhoods.

Robert Jemerson, a pastor at Second Baptist Church, said the church simply wants to provide “a safe shelter [for young migrants] by ensuring that they have education and their health care needs are met. … It’s our mission to meet the needs of those less fortunate.”

Rev. Robert Jemerson, pastor of Second Baptist Church

The deal also would help the church pay off debts associated with building the $4.1 million community center and provide additional revenue for its community programming, church leaders have said. It turned down a proposal from a charter school to lease the space in favor of the shelter.

Harold Arant, who oversees VisionQuest operations in Texas, explained that VisionQuest will provide the children six hours of schooling, one hour of outdoor recreation, physical and mental health care, and take them on field trips. Meanwhile, the company works with the federal government to either place them with family members in the U.S., with foster guardians, or in long-term migrant foster facilities.

“We work hard to find these kids families,” Arant said.

During the meeting, VIsionQuest also faced accusations of mismanagement and abuse in other facilities. Those have been investigated with on a case-by-case basis, Arant said. “Sure [accusations] are going to happen if you’re working with children.”

If abuse is found, he said. “Those folks are [fired].”

While VisionQuest – not the church – would operate the shelter, the company plans to establish an advisory committee made up of church and community members to oversee the facility, Arant said.

VisionQuest has a $14.5 million contract with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate two migrant shelters in the San Antonio area. VisionQuest is looking into a location in Universal City, where its City Council also will be considering a rejection from its Zoning Commission.

Jonathan Ryan, President and CEO of RAICES, said a for-profit company like VisionQuest partners with nonprofits like his to provide legal services to migrants. RAICES could stand to profit, but it refuses to take part in the for-profit venture.

“We do not want this facility here in Texas and we do not want this money,” Ryan said.

Jonathan Ryan, RAICES Executive Director

President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to impose indefinite detention of families entering the country illegally, noted Fátima Menéndez, a legislative attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Allowing VisionQuest to open in San Antonio would make the city complicit in that indefinite detention, Menéndez said. “I know many people refer to these facilities as shelters but they are indeed detention facilities.”

Commissioner Patricia Gibbons (D9) said it was a mistake to allow national politics to seep into local zoning decisions.

“We are unique. We’re not Washington [D.C.].” Gibbons said. She voted in favor of the change along with commissioners Francine Romero (D8) and Marc Whyte (D10).

VisionQuest fully intends to take its request up with Council, said Jeffery Bender, a spokesman for VisionQuest.

“We understand many people in attendance at the meeting [Tuesday] were very passionate and wanted to share their views, as we are, about providing care to these children,” Bender said. “But the law states what can and can’t be done and we want to follow that path.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...