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San Antonio church has signed lease with for-profit company to house migrant children

Written by on September 30, 2019

Rev. Robert Jemerson, pastor of Second Baptist Church, said the church has signed a lease with VisionQuest, a for-profit company that operates child migrant shelters for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The facility has a large dinning area.

The Second Baptist Church, a large East Side congregation near the AT&T Center, has signed a $3.2 million lease with a for-profit company to house up to 90 migrant boys ages 11 to 17.

The migrant shelter would be in a 44,500-square-foot community center that is next to the church and used for after-school programs and community functions.

The for-profit company, VisionQuest, is contracted by the government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement to house migrant children. It was recently the focus of reports of abusive staff behavior at a Philadelphia facility.

“We will hold them to the highest standard,” said the Rev. Robert Jemerson, Second Baptist’s pastor. “I think that they’re doing good. Where else would the children go? If they’re coming across the border unaccompanied, they’re liable to be exploited.”

The immigration surge over the past year has increased demand for temporary shelters. Six other shelters — operated by Catholic Charities, Southwest Key Programs and Baptist Child and Family Services — house migrant children in San Antonio.

VisionQuest and Second Baptist are seeking to rezone the site to accommodate a large shelter. The church’s current zoning allows it to house 19 children. It’s unclear when city officials will vote on the issue, but it will likely be before the end of the year.

VisionQuest and the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to requests for comment.

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who represents the East Side, said he opposes the agreement. He said the church should have leased its facility to another interested company: the Compass Rose Academy charter school, which would have leased the building for $5.8 million over five years, Calvert said.

“I brought a $5.8 million offer to Rev. Jemerson because I could not stand for the child abuse that happens at these particular facilities,” Calvert said. “I thought it would be a terribly divisive political wedge between the black church and the Hispanic community and others who care about human rights.”

But Jemerson said he did not want to commit to a five-year lease for the school. Church minutes show that the membership overwhelmingly voted for the VisionQuest shelter after receiving the two proposals. Calvert said the church rushed the vote before a counterproposal could be presented.

East Side City Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan said she also opposes the shelter.

“I’m not supporting it right now. I’ve done my due diligence on investigating who VisionQuest is. I’m not impressed, and this is something that I’ve already expressed to their representative,” Andrews-Sullivan said.

Renee Watson, an activist and neighborhood resident for more than 50 years, said there were other ways the East Side should use the community space.

“The church is making money off the backs of these kids,” she said. “It would be better to lose the building than lose your soul.”

VisionQuest officials visited the church after Second Baptist posted a national ad offering to rent out the community center.

If the zoning adjustment is approved, VisionQuest will lease the second floor of the building and convert the classrooms into bedrooms with bunk beds.

The second floor includes a fellowship hall — called “The Jemerson Agape Room,” written in gold letters above the room’s entrance — which would be split into multiple bedrooms, Jemerson said.

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