PORTLAND — When he moved from Burundi in 2010, Dieudonne Nahigombeye’s first home in the United States was Portland’s homeless shelter on Oxford Street.

He arrived straight from a refugee camp in one of the poorest countries in the world, with no money, no job and no knowledge of English.

After his years in the camp, he was familiar with the sleeping arrangements at Oxford Street — where dozens of men and women sleep inches away from each other on thin plastic mats.

“It is not a good place,” Nahigombeye said Friday.

Nahigombeye, 29, was part of a surge of people from war-torn countries seeking refuge in the city’s six private and public shelters.

Although Nahigombeye now has his own apartment, has been granted political asylum and speaks fluent English, 45 people with similar stories are sleeping in the shelters this winter.

“Folks seeking asylum is an emerging trend,” said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, record numbers of people are showing up at Portland’s shelters. The city and private charitable organizations are scrambling every night to find places for them to sleep.

There are 322 designated spots across the city; more than 350 people are seeking refuge at night this winter.

“It has spiked in the past year. We are seeing historic highs in the number of people seeking services,” said John Bradley, associate director at Preble Street, a private, nonprofit organization that operates soup kitchens, food pantries and overnight shelters.

Portland has had a continuing influx of people seeking asylum because of persecution, or fear of persecution, based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in social groups. The majority are from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit in Portland that provides legal assistance to low-income residents, says its applicants for political asylum increased from 100 in 2009 to about 400 in 2010. The agency stopped accepting new cases in early 2010 because it couldn’t handle any more.

It’s not clear why more people are coming to Portland seeking political asylum, although some observers with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project speculate that the city’s immigrant community is gaining visibility and attracting more people as it grows and gets more diverse.

This winter, Preble Street is letting about 60 people stay overnight in its day room when the 154 spots at the Oxford Street Shelter and 77 spots at the city’s family shelter fill up.

Gardner said Portland’s homeless population would be even greater if the city had not found permanent housing for 492 men and women in the last year, a 17 percent increase in placements from the year before.

To operate its two shelters, the city spends about $1.7 million a year from state and local tax dollars and the Maine State Housing Authority.

Gardner said shelter operators fear cuts in state funding as lawmakers look for ways to close a $221 million shortfall in the state Department of Health and Human Services budget.

Portland’s shelters open every night at 7:30 p.m. When the Oxford Street Shelter fills up, people are sent to Preble Street to sleep in the day room. Shelter officials vow that they will not turn anyone away.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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