PORTLAND — The safety net for the most vulnerable in our city has giant holes. The shelters are beyond capacity, with those admitted lucky to have a place to sleep for the night. The homeless file out in the morning, their few possessions gathered in shopping carts, duffels and garbage bags, heading for the breakfast line.

Across the street, a different line forms, with people waiting for the city to open its doors for General Assistance services. General Assistance helps residents in desperate need to pay for housing costs, food, medications and other basic needs.

The GA office is short-staffed; caseworkers can only help a limited number of people in a day.

People camp out overnight to get a place at the front of the line. They do this because without general assistance to prevent eviction, they, too, will be homeless. The overnighters include pregnant women, mothers risking their health and safety for the sake of their children. Remember, it’s cold now and there aren’t any 24/7 public restrooms close to the Lancaster Street offices.

Many of the people in both of these lines are refugees and asylees. They have come here from places where they have endured much worse than long lines. They have suffered losses and atrocities unfathomable to most of us. They arrive survivors with nothing. Their lives have been completely changed.

Many of the new immigrants in Maine fall into a category described as asylum seekers because they are individuals waiting for an asylum decision from the federal government. As a result of new state laws, many of these individuals can no longer get help from the safety net programs administered by the state.

Being a person seeking asylum in a new country is already an uncertain time. It’s a time of limbo and people in this position may need some assistance from others until the immigration process grants the permits necessary to be able to get a paid job. It’s a time that calls for compassion.

The refugee and asylee communities share a common experience of having arrived here with little or nothing. That memory is ever fresh in their minds.

The ethnic communities sacrifice to help those who have recently arrived: family, friends, friends of friends, those who have heard that in Maine they will find someone they can trust and that Maine is a safe place.

The ethnic community leaders cobble together help for the newly arriving immigrants. The help they provide falls completely under the radar screen.

It’s a network of organized, volunteer efforts outside of the contracted services provided by nonprofits and government agencies. It’s an effort that is heroic. The immigrant community deserves recognition and support for the help they provide.

Frequently, the immigrant community leaders and immigrant nonprofit organizations are told that the services they provide duplicate services already available. This is simply not true. Newly arriving refugees and asylees seek out the leaders in their own communities whom they trust and from whom they receive understanding and compassion.

Most importantly, they receive ongoing support in navigating the complexities of life in a new country. After having experienced so much trauma, trusting can be very difficult.

The immigrant leaders are the go-between brokers who know the needs of their communities and how best to address those needs. Most have been here well over a decade.

They have adapted to living in our culture with a keen understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. Their struggles and lessons can inform a fresh response to urgent and serious community issues.

It’s time to listen and learn from their wisdom and include them as equal partners in the design and implementation of programs and services to create meaningful solutions.

The immigrant community leaders are competent and willing partners.

It shames us all that there are lines anywhere for shelter or food; that health care and dental care are withheld except in cases of emergencies. It hurts us all that children are graduated from high school without having been provided a level of education that will get them into the job market or college.

It is particularly painful when the systems of support that are in place overlook those least capable of advocating for themselves, especially when language, culture and color raise the bar on barriers to equal treatment.

— Special to the Press Herald