Unaccompanied immigrant children could be housed at Marietta shelter

Marietta could soon become home to a shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children, under a proposal from a Stone Mountain nonprofit.

The shelter could house up to 50 children in custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a nonprofit that obtained approval from the city's zoning department to refurbish an existing building. Freemont Grace Human Services would run the facility.

The plan to open the center comes months after the federal government stopped its efforts to open an Atlanta-area shelter for unaccompanied children who are appended along the U.S. southwest border. In June, the government was looking for 96,000 square feet of space to house up to 500 children in southwest metro Atlanta.

The feds previously explored using Fort Benning near Columbus as a new shelter for immigrant children, but that plan was abandoned over Pentagon concerns it could interfere with troop "readiness."

Once children are apprehended at the U.S. border with Mexico, they are placed in the care of the HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office provides care until they can find sponsors to keep the children while their cases move through immigration court. Sponsors are usually their parents or other relatives.

Mitchell Bryant, a managing partner with Freemont Grace Holdings, the parent company of the nonprofit, said the organization is seeking a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. The money would be used to renovate and staff the existing building.

Bryant said the deadline to submit his grant application is Nov. 12, and he expects to hear back from the federal government within 30 to 45 days. Along with accepting children from the federal government, Bryant also said he would like to help other children who find themselves in precarious situations.

"We also have other programs that we are going to pursue in addition to that," he said, but all are aimed at children needing short-term shelter.

If he gets the funding, he will begin making the renovations needed for his operations and equipping the building with furniture and other necessary items. He will also use the funds to hire about 30 staff members, make rental payments and provide food for the children. The shelter could open by late February or March if everything goes to plan, Bryant said.

"I believe that you can operate something in compliance with the law, but you can do so in a compassionate way because these are children," he said.

Bryant said the average stay of the children will be about 35 days. According to the grant application, children will be required to undergo an initial intake assessment within 24 hours of arriving, an initial medical exam within two business days, a risk assessment within 72 hours and every 30 days after and an individual service plan within five days. The children will also be provided at least six hours of education each day and at least one hour of leisure time. That could be held indoors or outside, Bryant said.

"Obviously when the schedule permits, it can be more than that," he said.

News of the proposal came to light in late October when the Marietta Zoning Board of Appeals approved a variance request from Freemont to operate the residential shelter in an existing building. The 22,000-square-foot building, owned by former Marietta City Councilman Philip Goldstein, is the former home of the Hartmann Center, a rehabilitation facility for teenagers.

The property is in Ward 7 on the southeast side of the city and is represented by Goldstein's son, Joseph, who took office in 2018. Joseph Goldstein said because of his father owning the property, he will not comment on the shelter.

Rusty Roth, Marietta's director of development service, said Bryant informed the Zoning Board of Appeals at its Oct. 29 meeting "that immigrant children from the border would be housed in this facility." When asked about the use of the building, Philip Goldstein said he was made aware of Bryant's intentions and he believes the building is suited for that purpose.

"There is plenty of room to handle what the tenant is asking," he said, adding some interior renovations would be made.

Goldstein, who also said he owns a shopping center near the building, said he would not bring any tenants or businesses into the building that would be inappropriate for the area.

Roth said an appeal to challenge the zoning decision could be filed within 30 days of the board's approval, which would force the case to go before the City Council for a final decision. If no challenge is filed, council approval is not needed.

At least one person who expressed opposition to Bryant's plans said she will consider filing an appeal. Ronna Woodruff, an attorney whose property next to the site in question, said she did not feel like the building is large enough to house up to 50 children at a time. She also questioned whether Freemont Grace would be able to provide any outdoor recreation since there is no greenspace in the immediate area.

"I'm not sure if they are thinking this through," she said.

Along with complying with local zoning laws, Bryant said he will have to also obtain the necessary state licensing required for facilities that are housing children. In his case, he said he's working to apply for a residential childcare license with the Georgia Department of Human Services Office of the Inspector General. A search of the Georgia Secretary of State's website shows Freemont Grace Holdings registered as a domestic limited liability company in July. Bryant is listed as a manager.

The shelter's location is in one of five counties in Georgia where law enforcement backs the controversial 287(g) program, which allows local officers to investigate the immigration status of detained people they believe are in the country illegally. Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren renewed the program in June. Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway in May also extended the program. Floyd, Hall and Whitfield counties also participate in 287(g).

Bryant, a pastor at Atlanta Pavilion Fellowship Church in Stone Mountain, said the shelter location is "perfect" since it's close to the airport. Plans call for the building to have a commercial kitchen, 2,200 square-foot dining room, eight showers, eight dormitories, four classrooms, a laundry room, four recreational rooms, 10 staff offices and a nurse's office.

Bryant said he will be good neighbors to adjacent property owners and tenants.

"We expect the building to be well-maintained," he said. "We think we can offer some compassionate care for the children."

(Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.)