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Feds search for site to house 500 immigrant children in Central Florida

Orlando Sentinel

The federal government is searching a wide swath of Central Florida for a place to house 500 unaccompanied immigrant children as part of the Trump administration’s plan to establish a permanent shelter in the region, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to locate the shelter in an area that includes the area near Walt Disney World as well as Orlando, all of Seminole County, most of Orange and Lake counties and portions of Osceola, Sumter and Polk counties.

In all, the department is looking to lease a building of about 100,000 square feet with 125 bedrooms that would be move-in ready by November 2020, according to a General Services Administration listing.

“Care will be provided 24 hours a day/seven days a week by 500 staff,” the listing reads. “The shelter will require child bedrooms/sleeping areas, child bathrooms, classrooms, indoor recreation/multipurpose areas, medical, dining/food service, administrative and support space. Approximately 2 acres of exterior space shall be provided for outdoor recreation areas.”

The site would need about 275 parking spaces and be leasable for about 15 years. Brokers were required to express interest by Aug. 16, with offers due in October.

The land boundaries are for a potential shelter are:

  • North: State Road 44, starting west of Wildwood and east to Interstate 4 near Deltona.
  • East: Interstate 4 south to State Road 417 north of Kissimmee.
  • South: State Road 17 to State Road 92 to State Road 570 to State Road 98.
  • West: State Road 98 north to Interstate 75.

In a letter last month, HHS contacted state lawmakers and mayors informing them a search was underway for vacant properties in Central Florida, as well as Virginia and Los Angeles. The Office of Refugee Resettlement cited a “dramatic increase in referrals of (unaccompanied children) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this Fiscal Year and continues to operate in emergency influx mode.”

Since then, Orlando’s planning department has received phone calls from brokers who said they were looking at properties on behalf of the GSA, asking questions about schools and overnight daycares, said Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer. However, the talks haven’t progressed, she said.

“To be clear, we’ve had no direct conversations with the GSA and we have no indication they are targeting any specific sites,” Lafser said.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Orange County, said it received contact from a broker asking questions about a 125-bedroom motel listed for sale, near the Florida Mall.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Clermont, whose district includes parts of Lake and Sumter counties included in the GSA’s boundaries, said his position was unchanged from July, when Webster issued a statement saying “current facilities are overwhelmed, and temporary shelters are expensive and unable to provide the standard of care that every child deserves.”

While he said any such plans needed to ensure “there are not adverse impacts to Florida communities,” Webster added, “if suitable space exists in Central Florida where minor, unaccompanied alien children, who are vulnerable to being trafficked, can be housed safely and receive the care they need until families or guardians are identified, I believe we have a responsibility to evaluate such plans on their merits and not play politics. …

He continued, “It would be an act of political lip service to complain about the current facilities and standards of care, and then decry HHS’ attempts to improve the care and attain better facilities.”

However, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, said it was “completely unacceptable” for the Trump administration to expand the program “at the same that they are working to hold children indefinitely and override health and safety protections.”

“The Administration should immediately initiate reforms to reduce the number of children in U.S. custody, not build new detention facilities for them,” Demings said in a statement. “I do not support expanding this unjust and ill-prepared program to Central Florida.”

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, said as part of the Energy and Commerce Committee charged with HHS oversight, he was requesting all information related to the proposed facility as well as periodic site visits to current facilities.

“I oppose any new immigrant child detention facilities,” he said.

The solicitation says the facility would need 500 staff members, with 167 working eight-hour shifts at a time.

It also would include 42 clinical offices for counselors, 63 caseworker stations and 83 bathrooms and showers for children. Indoors, the agency wanted 5,000 square feet of classroom space, 15,000 square feet of indoor recreation space and about 3,000 square feet of medical space.

Sister Ann Kendrick, an activist and spokeswoman for Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, said the new details “sound like they’re creating a long-term strategy for separating children and for housing children.”

She added, “Who is going to benefit? Not the people of this country. And certainly not the children, who should be united with their families.”

Such a facility may be tough to find, said Todd Dantzler, a former Polk County commissioner and commercial real-estate broker.

“I don’t know of any vacant 100,000-square-foot buildings, except for some of these vacant big-box stores,” said Dantzler, a managing partner with Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate in Lakeland. “Orlando or Tampa is probably going tobe the best shot for something like that.”

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