Portland’s shelter for homeless families is being stretched beyond capacity by an influx of new arrivals – especially asylum-seeking immigrants – combined with a housing crunch that is hindering the city’s ability to move families out of the shelter system.
Portland social services officials have been forced to house several families in overflow spaces, such as administrative offices converted at night into makeshift sleeping quarters, because the city’s 36-unit family shelter and three standby hotel rooms have been full for several weeks. Meanwhile, several churches and individuals are trying to build a coalition of host families willing to provide temporary housing and other assistance when demand outstrips space in city shelters.
“We’re just offering hospitality and compassion for people who really need it,” said Nick Meintel, one of the organizers of the Compassionate Housing Initiative started by three Yarmouth churches.
Portland’s family shelter has seen record demand in recent weeks, driven largely by arrivals of immigrant families from central African nations. The summertime surge is consistent with last year, when so many homeless families sought housing assistance from the city that Portland officials were forced to cap at three the number of overflow hotel rooms to reduce city expenditures.
With all the apartments at the family shelter and all three hotel rooms filled, the city has housed five families totaling 25 individuals – 15 of them under age 16 – in a downstairs area of the Chestnut Street family shelter or in the lobby of the city’s General Assistance offices. Children and juveniles are provided mats or cots, but others are forced to sleep in seats.
“It is certainly not ideal,” said Dawn Stiles, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services.
In recent years, Portland has become a destination for asylum-seeking individuals and families fleeing war or persecution in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and other troubled nations.
Many immigrants arrive in Maine on work, student or tourist visas but then apply for asylum after their visas expire, as allowed under federal law. But the asylum process takes months or years to complete, and asylum seekers in Maine typically rely on General Assistance until they receive their federal work permits – a process that takes at least six months after they apply for asylum. The rising share of General Assistance dollars consumed by asylum seekers has placed a financial strain on the city, however, and led to political as well as legal battles with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.
Roughly one-half of the 36 families living in the Chestnut Street units or hotel rooms during the past two weeks are from foreign countries, as are four of the five families living in the “overflow” space, Stiles said.
While Portland has seen demand outstrip available space in the past, the city’s rental housing crisis is exacerbating the problem, Stiles said. Fewer landlords are eager to work with the city to place low-income tenants in their apartments. In turn, that means less turnover at the shelter to accommodate new arrivals.
“We are always trying to develop more resources and relationships with landlords in the community,” Stiles said.
Carmen Ware, a New York native living at the Chestnut Street shelter with her two children, has witnessed first-hand the housing crunch in Portland, as well as the demand for housing from immigrant families, some of whom she has befriended.
Ware said she received a federal Section 8 voucher for housing some time ago but has been unable to find an apartment because of the restrictions on the voucher and the tight rental market. Ware has been in the family shelter for three months.
Meanwhile, the city is reaching out to the region’s spiritual and established immigrant communities for help with the backlog.
The manager of Portland’s Chestnut Street shelter, Jeff Tardiff, has also developed a relationship with the Compassionate Housing Initiative and other religious and civic groups that can assist families when there is a backlog at the shelter.
The Compassionate Housing Initiative began earlier this year with three Yarmouth churches – the First Universalist Church, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – interested in helping Maine’s new immigrant community. The loose-knit group has sought households willing to host families temporarily – ideally for a week or less – until space becomes available either in the city shelter or hotel rooms. Initiative supporters also provide meals, translation services and even play dates for any children in the homeless families, Meintel said.
Still in its infancy, the program was helping a family of six move into temporary space on Monday night – the third such family it has assisted. The Rev. Lori Whittemore of the Abbey of HOPE – an interfaith community – said the initiative is seeking more host families and hopes to have a network of sorts set up by fall.
“We are just trying to have a process . . . where we as a community can work together, hand-in-hand, to meet this need,” Whittemore said.
Other homeless families have been taken in by other immigrant families, often from the same native country.
There is a parallel effort underway in Portland to create a larger, more formalized network of churches and spiritual communities to create Maine’s first affiliate of the national, interfaith Family Promise program, which provides shelter, meals and support services to homeless families. Whereas Compassionate Housing Initiative is geared toward providing emergency, temporary housing and support, Family Promise would work with homeless families over a longer period.
Rev. Sara Ewing-Merrill, co-pastor of HopeGateWay United Methodist Church in Portland, said three congregations have signed up so far, but they are looking for 13 before they create the network. Ewing-Merrill said the current space crunch at the Chestnut Street family shelter only underscores the need.
“The community is definitely stepping up, but the need is overwhelming,” she said.