A proposal to house unaccompanied refugee children in a shelter in Alma has been heard by the city’s planning commission and forwarded to the full city commission for public comment.
The proposal would allow Bethany Christian Services, based in Grand Rapids, to lease a vacant nursing home in Alma from the Michigan Masonic Home and convert it to a children's shelter.
The nursing home emptied during the COVID-19 pandemic when residents were moved to other facilities.
Bethany's executive director for the region that covers Alma, Krista Stevens, said converting the nursing home to a shelter would allow her organization to care for an increasing number of children crossing the southern U.S. border without their families.
“They are fleeing legitimate trauma,” Stevens said. Violence, state corruption, human trafficking, and extreme poverty are pushing children out of their homes in Central America, she said.
After they cross the U.S. border, unaccompanied children can be housed in influx shelters. Those are only meant to hold refugees for 72 hours, but a surge in border crossings has led to hundreds of children being held for more than 10 days.
Bethany’s proposed shelter in Alma would house refugees between 12 and 17 years old for an average of about 40 days while staff work to reunite them with their families or family friends, Stevens said.
Stevens and Alma’s assistant city manager, Aeric Ripley, both said the shelter could be controversial.
Ripley said he had no position on the proposal -- his job, he said, is only to make sure it progresses fairly through the city’s zoning process. The conversion would require a conditional rezoning for the parcel.
“There’s a lot of rules,” Ripley said.
Conditional rezoning allows buildings that would otherwise stand vacant to be repurposed, he said.
“Things are changing here, and you’ve got to find new uses for these buildings,” he said.
Alma’s population has dropped almost 10% from its peak in 1980, census records show.
Stevens said she anticipates opposition, but she’s ready to answer people’s concerns.
“Sometimes, the concern comes from a place of not knowing, or not understanding, misconception, or misinformation,” she said, “none of which is malicious or anything negative. It’s just not knowing.”
Stevens said Bethany plans to talk with people in Alma about the goals of the shelter and assuage worries.
Michigan Masonic Home Chief Financial Officer Todd Moeggenborg said for his organization, leasing the vacant nursing home to Bethany is largely a financial decision.
But he said sheltering refugee children is a good fit for the Masonic Home. “Part of our mission is caring for others,” he said. “If you look at our history, we used to operate an orphanage.”
Moeggenborg said he had already heard some opposition from Alma residents.
This week’s planning commission meeting was not intended to be a time for public comment on the proposal. Nonetheless, several people reportedly spoke out against the effort to set up a shelter.
The official time for public comment comes next month at Alma’s July 12 city commission meeting, Ripley said.