Officials focused on Maine’s housing crisis and the state’s growing number of asylum seekers are sounding an alarm over a “grave” situation that could become even worse when millions in federal aid runs out on July 1.
If federal funds run dry or a more permanent housing plan isn’t developed, hundreds of refugees who traveled thousands of miles to find a better life in America could find themselves living on Maine streets.
“We need to provide permanent housing for them,” said Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships at the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
Ray said GPCOG took to Twitter in early March to ask the public for input on what she called a “grave” situation.
According to Ray, there are about 1,200 people in greater Portland with no fixed address. Of those, she said, more than 700 are from other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola or Haiti, seeking asylum in the U.S.
Most of those immigrants, Ray said, are holed up in area hotels, costing about $3.5 million a month. While two thirds of that money, she said, comes from the state Department of Health and Human Services’ general assistance fund, the other third comes directly from pandemic relief funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That money, Ray said, is scheduled to run out on July 1.
The possibility of over $1 million in monthly federal funds drying up has members of Portland’s city council looking at large vacant commercial properties and for help from other Maine communities.
Portland City Councilor Mark Dion worries that Portland will have trouble footing the bill alone for the remainder of the year.
“If it’s left for (Portland) to fund, it’s going to be about $10 million,” Dion said.
Fellow City Councilor Tae Chong has called for help from other communities statewide. At least a dozen communities in Maine, he said, have similar resources to what Portland can offer for new Mainers.
“If all those towns took 50 people, Portland wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden,” he said.
Ray said Portland and other Maine municipalities have already established communities of expatriates from the asylum seekers’ home countries, which serves as a draw.
“People want to go to a place where they know there is already a community that speaks their language and can help them,” she said.
But the journey to a new permanent home is not easy. Chelsea Hoskins works with asylum seekers in the Portland Department of Health and Human Services as a resettlement coordinator. Most asylum seekers in Maine travel by land through Central America and Mexico to cross the southern U.S. border on foot.
If they’re lucky enough to make it safely across the southern border, those looking to come to Maine usually get a bus ticket for the remaining 2,500 miles to New England, she said.
In non-crisis times, Portland would temporarily house asylum seekers at the Portland Family Shelter on Oxford Street, but its capacity is about 142 beds — or 20 to 30 families.
Hoskins said the number of individuals and families arriving in Portland has skyrocketed over the past nine months.
In January 2021, she said, there were only about 13 new families, or 43 people at the Portland Family Shelter. Starting in July of 2021, when 20 new families arrived, that number went up sharply. Another 45 families, or 145 people, arrived in October, and in December 68 additional families arrived.
“There’s only so much space in Portland,” she said.
Hoskins would prefer to focus on finding permanent housing for the arriving families, but the crush of new arrivals has forced her to spend more time on temporary basic needs such as food and health care.
“A lot of time has been shifted to that kind of care,” she said. “On a day-to-day basis, there are people with multiple needs.”
Ideally, Ray said, Portland could use a much larger temporary family shelter like the one on Oxford Street, but the need is so great and immediate, there's not enough time to arrange something that formal.
“We definitely would like a permanent solution, but that can take a year or two to build,” she said.
As for the next two to three months, Ray said, GPCOG is recommending finding a piece of property, either a vacant building or a vacant lot, to set up accommodations as an alternative to local hotels.
On vacant property, Ray suggests setting up pre-fab or temporary mobile homes. Most likely, she said, addressing the whole problem would require two to three locations with about 30 families, or 200 people, in each spot.
“I don’t think it's likely that we could put everybody in one site, because we’re scrambling,” she said.
Ray said the city has stepped up to accommodate an influx of immigrants in the past. She noted that about 400 people came to Portland in the summer of 2019. At the time, the city opened the Portland Expo, allowing families to sleep on cots, while coordinators like Hoskins got them into housing within a few months.
Dion said there are large commercial spaces available in Portland for lease right now, and he has considered pushing the city to rent some of that space like it did with the Expo in 2019.
Chong said he liked the idea, too, though there are a lot of additional costs involved, such as retrofitting bathrooms (of vacant commercial spaces).
“We’re going to have to pay, one way or the other, but I would agree that we could do that. It would be better,” he said.
Chong said he was “pretty confident” that the problem can be solved by July 1, but he’s worried about how much dignity it will cost Maine’s newest residents in the process.
“I think the money is there. It’s do we want to keep people in hotels or keep people in our communities?” he said.
Dion said he also worried about keeping people who had traveled halfway around the world in a vacant lot.
“I’m afraid the best we can offer them is a version of the American dream, constituting a tent city. We’re not very far away from that option,” he said.