October 5’ 2021
When the Michigan Masonic Home closed the former Warwick Living Center in March, it was occupied by senior citizens in need of various levels of care. But when the facility reopens, likely later this year, it will become the temporary home to unaccompanied male refugees ages 12-17, who will be arriving from the southern U.S. border.
To say the newfound use has created a bit of controversy in the community over the past four months would be an understatement. Multiple rounds of conversation and negotiation ensued between two sides of differing views- one side raising concern over the possibility of increased violence that might arise from housing refugees within the town and the other advocating children to be provided a safe living space as they and their guardians navigate the contours of the American immigration system.
“If I lived in the community, I would be asking the same questions,” said Bethany Christian Services Branch Director Krista Stevens about concerns of violence and crime increase. “But these children are fleeing violence. They had to leave family to be surrounded by the safety we can provide.”
However, city commissioners put an end to all the back-and-forth discussion last week when they voted 4-2 to approve a conditional rezoning request from the Masonic Home, owners of the building, and Grand-Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, the agency that will operate the refugee center, that allowed the proposal to proceed.
Despite the approval, however, there are multiple moving pieces that need to be figured out before the facility can be up and running. While minimal amounts of renovation are needed for the facility to be ready, there is extra paperwork and legal obligations that need to be ironed out before the rezoning can be complete. The children will also be thoroughly tested for COVID-19 before they move into the facility.
The new residents will have to file and produce appropriate paperwork before they will move into the facility. The facility itself is working on installing cameras and security systems while trying to find people to staff the institution so that it can be filled to capacity, with all 36 beds being used by children. The facility is also working to equip their staff with counselors and therapists to provide the children with necessary mental health services during their time there.
This facility is going to be a “transitional assessment facility” where the children will be housed for no more than 45 days. Within these 45 days, the appropriate authorities will work to unite them with a family member within the United States or an appointed sponsor. If 45 days pass and neither a family member nor a sponsor is found or the child turns 18, they will be transferred to a more permanent foster care unit.
According to Bethany Christian Services, the support they’ve received from Alma townsfolk via emails, letters and phone calls has been overwhelming. The heavy negotiations on the matter were a testament to spirit of a democracy and the verdict was a testament to the compassion of the town community.