A pastor’s proposal to open a shelter in Marietta for immigrant children in custody of the U.S. government is now headed to a vote by the City Council.
The shelter could house up to 50 children in custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Mitchell Bryant, a pastor and managing partner with Freemont Grace Holdings, the parent company of the nonprofit Freemont Grace Human Services. Bryant obtained approval in October from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to refurbish an existing building.
Attorney Ronna Woodruff, who owns a law office adjacent to the proposed shelter, has filed an objection to the plans.
Although the new use for the existing building required no approval from the Marietta City Council, due to the appeal, the city must vote whether to allow the shelter to proceed at its Dec. 11 meeting.
Mayor Steve Tumlin said news of Bryant’s application has “caught a lot of ears.” Tumlin added he has heard a lot of feedback now that Woodruff has filed an appeal.
“This is probably one that should come before the full council,” he said.
Bryant said Freemont Grace Holdings 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 building.
A spokeswoman for the federal agency said she could not confirm whether the government received a grant application from that organization. The application deadline was Nov. 12.
In her letter appealing the city’s zoning decision, Woodruff argues that the property in question has been “a nuisance to business and residential properties” in the past 10 years. The building is the previous home of the Hartmann Center, which served as a residential drug treatment program for teens.
She said the building does not have exterior play areas or greenspace to accommodate children, and is in poor condition.
“As you may know, play is essential to childhood development because it contributes to a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being,” she said. “Playing on a blacktop, even for a temporary period of time, is insufficient for proper development.”
The building where Bryant plans to open the immigrant children’s center is in an area zoned for general commercial use at Powers Ferry Road between Cloverdale Drive and Charles Avenue. Land across Cloverdale Drive, which includes Woodruff Law, owned by Ronna Woodruff.
Woodruff did not return calls seeking comment.
The land where the center would sit is owned by former Marietta City Councilman Philip Goldstein, who said he’s owned the property since June 20, 2019. Goldstein, who served on the City Council until 2018, previously said 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.
The plan to open the shelter comes amid a reported surge of immigrants — most of them from Central America — crossing the country’s Southwest border. Once children are apprehended there, 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.
Bryant, who said he expects the average stay for children at the shelter will be about 35 days, said he is looking forward to “vigorously” defending his application and plans for the building. He said the issues Woodruff has with the building are all related to previous property owners.
As part of the grant-writing process, Bryant said he had to submit a budget outlining how much it would cost to get the program up and running. If he is awarded a grant, Bryant said he will use the funding to make necessary renovations and hire about 34 staffers needed for the program.
“We’re pretty proud of the program we’re putting together and at the end of the day, we plan to help these kids,” he said.
No website exists for Freemont Grace Holdings. The Secretary of State’s Corporations Division notes that it was first created in January 2018 to provide a way to offer affordable housing for people struggling to make ends meet, Bryant said.
Bryant, who said he has no experience running a children’s shelter, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he has lined up partners who will help establish the facility. He said he has a memorandum of understanding with one organization that has experience in “child-related issues and residential programs” dating back to the 1970s. He declined to provide a list of his partners to the AJC.
Bryant is a pastor at Atlanta Pavilion Fellowship Church in Stone Mountain. A background search shows he comes from the St. Petersburg, Florida, area and attended the University of Richmond where he graduated with a juris doctorate. He operated several religious-based ministries in Florida, and established Atlanta Pavilion Fellowship Church in 2018.
Records also show he’s been the subject of two evictions — in December 2016 and September 2011 — and a November 2004 foreclosure for property he owned in St. Petersburg. When asked about his past financial troubles, Bryant said the 2016 eviction stemmed from his church having to use funds to pay for “serious termite” and roofing issues that would have cost more than $100,000 to remedy.
“We kept up with it for a long time,” he said of the payments. “Economically, it just didn’t work.”
Bryant told the AJC that his past financial difficulties won’t hinder his ability to operate the shelter. He said the grant funding will provide the financial resources needed for Freemont Grace’s plans and that if Freemont is awarded the grant, he will have to comply with monthly financial audits.
“It’s a very fine-tuned machine that we’ll be running, financially and operationally,” he said.
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