People in North Philadelphia spoke out Wednesday night about an Arizona-based youth agency’s plan to house undocumented immigrant children in the neighborhood — and a lot of what they had to say wasn’t good.

“The only thing I get with VisionQuest are horror stories,” said the first speaker, Sister Taleah Taylor of the City of Dreams Coalition. “What’s going to change? Now we’re going to bring in kids from Mexico?”

VisionQuest president Mark Contento responded: “Obviously some very incendiary accusations. ... It’s a different program.”

About 170 people, one-third or more of them VisionQuest employees, filled almost every seat during a sometimes tense meeting at the Yorkhouse apartment building at 5325 Old York Rd., just up the street from the VisionQuest property. The meeting was led by City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents the area and said she was acting at the request of zoning officials.

The hearing lasted four hours, coming as the for-profit agency pushes for zoning approvals to open the center. A stenographer took down the record as people spoke, in case community comments should become part of a future lawsuit.

VisionQuest plans to house about 60 Spanish-speaking, undocumented immigrant boys at its Logan Plaza property, at 5201 Old York Rd. The children, ages 12 to 17, are among thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who turned up alone at the nation’s southern border, fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

VisionQuest is under contract with the federal government to house the children.

The city government is paying close attention. More than half a dozen elected or appointed city officials, or their representatives, attended the meeting, including Councilwoman Helen Gym, Department of Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, and Miriam Enriquez, head of the city Office of Immigrant Affairs.

“We want to be a good partner with the community,” said VisionQuest’s James Smith, who will be in charge of the Philadelphia program. “Trust me, I will give everyone my cell phone number, and you can get in touch with me directly.”

Questions flew at him and other VisionQuest executives about the agency’s previous operation at the same site. It closed in 2017 after state inspectors found that staffers had struck and choked children. At least three VisionQuest employees were fired between 2011 and 2017 after hitting or physically handling children, state records show.

VisionQuest leaders promised that this program would be new and different, that the immigrant children would get education and health care — and that the community would gain real benefits in terms of 109 new jobs. They estimated the total positive economic impact of the new center at $107 million.

“That’s the same argument we get to build more prisons,” one woman in the audience responded. “You never mentioned the children. That’s what we care about.”

Part of the Wednesday night debate turned on whether the new facility was a detention center. VisionQuest officials insisted it was not, while others in the audience said it was, since the children cannot leave.

VisionQuest worker Joledson Delvalle said that he cared about children — and that he and his passionate coworkers would strive to ensure their health and safety. These are children, he said, who came to this country seeking the American dream.

Today VisionQuest operates in six states, providing housing and therapies to hundreds of juvenile offenders and other at-risk youths.

This week The Inquirer reported that agency founder and board chairman Bob Burton told new employees at the center, “Stop speaking Spanish.” He made the remarks as new hires underwent training at the VisionQuest property last month, preparing to house Spanish-speaking children.

Burton, who founded VisionQuest in 1973, apologized and said he was only trying to encourage a work environment that promoted open communication and understanding.

“VisionQuest," local resident Sandra Broadus said to the crowd, “has a very sketchy reputation in the community.”