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Alma planning commission recommends against youth refugee shelter

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Brett Dahlberg
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WCMU News
The now-vacant Warwick Living Center nursing home would become a youth refugee shelter under a proposal before the Alma city planning commission. The commission recommended against that proposal on Wednesday.

The Alma city planning commission voted Wednesday to recommend against a rezoning request that would allow a vacant nursing home to be converted to a shelter for young refugees.

In a 4-2 vote, the commission advised the full city council to reject the proposal, submitted by Bethany Christian Services, which said it would operate the shelter with federal funding.

The shelter would house children between 12 and 17 years old who crossed the southern U.S. border alone. Staff would work to reunite those children with their families, and they would stay in Alma for an average of about 40 days, Bethany executive director Krista Stevens said.

Youth shelters like the one proposed for Alma are growing more important as the number of young migrants crossing the border unaccompanied increases and short-term shelters at the border are pushed beyond capacity, said Stevens.

Matt Schooley, the Alma City Manager, made the motion to oppose rezoning.

“I do not feel comfortable with granting this proposal, nor do I see any benefit to the health, safety, welfare or convenience to our citizens of Alma,” he said, referring to the standards that conditional zoning requests must meet under city rules.

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Brett Dahlberg
Robi Rodriguez speaks at an Alma city planning commission meeting Wednesday in opposition to a proposal to rezone the land occupied by a vacant nursing home so it could become a shelter for young refugees. The planning commission voted against recommending the rezoning.

The vote against the proposal was received with applause and cheers from the crowd in the Alma High School auditorium, where the commission’s meeting was held.

One of those cheering was Robi Rodriguez, who led a group of people opposed to the conversion.

“There’s too much at risk of enabling human trafficking. There’s too much at risk of housing an adult man with a young boy,” she said. “The best way to help them is to send them back to their country of origin, with their family.”

Stevens says Bethany staff and federal employees would thoroughly vet the children housed at the proposed shelter. Those children would be fleeing human trafficking, war or poverty, she said.

Nancy O’Brien was the only person at the meeting who spoke in favor of the children’s shelter. A teacher for nearly 40 years, she said she wished the planning commission had acted on empathy instead of fear.

“It gets me emotional,” she said. “I would want someone to take care of my children if, God forbid, a war broke out or anything like that happened to my family.”

The recommendation against the shelter now heads to the full city commission, which will vote on the measure next Tuesday.