Portland is seeing record numbers of people relying on its homeless shelters amid a spike in demand driven mostly by an increase in immigrant families coming to the city.

The average number of people staying in emergency shelters throughout the city exceeded 520 individuals on an average night in March and April. That surpasses a record set in 2013, when the average number of people seeking shelter each day in a single month topped 500 for the first time, according to the city’s shelter statistics.

The biggest increase has been at the city-run family shelter on Chestnut Street, which is now overflowing into a second shelter, a warming center and the Salvation Army gymnasium. The demand for beds at the family shelter in March and April jumped 70 percent over the same period a year ago.

An influx of families seeking asylum in the United States is the biggest reason for the increased demand at that shelter. City officials estimate that immigrant families now account for 86 percent of the population in the family shelter system. That’s up from 26 percent in 2013.

The arrival of so many families led Portland’s city manager to say Thursday that the city may eventually have to review its policy of providing financial support to asylum seekers. However, the mayor said it’s good that immigrants are attracted to Portland and that the council should support his proposal to invest $10 million into affordable housing.

Many of the recently arrived asylum seekers, according to city officials, are much like Manuel Quiteke, who said he is eager to work and become self-sufficient.

The 43-year-old Quiteke was forced to flee his home country of Angola last month with his wife and five children. Quiteke, who has a solid command of English, worked as a well head technician on an oil rig for nearly 20 years. But his recent involvement in a human rights group advocating for better living conditions drew the attention of local officials in Angola, who ordered him to report to police.

“When you have a problem with the government in Angola, you lose,” he said.

Instead of reporting to police, Quiteke said he and his family fled the country because he feared for his life. He and his family had originally planned to stay with a friend in New York. But as soon as he arrived there, his friend encouraged him to come to Portland, which has a reputation as an open and affirming community that offers – and has fought at the state level for – resources to support asylum seekers and other immigrants.

“It was very difficult for me to get support” in New York, he said.

FAMILIES NO LONGER SENT TO HOTELS

Portland no longer places families in hotels when its shelters get full. To help accommodate the rising demand at the family shelter, the city last year leased a new building at 58 Chestnut St. that provides 40 additional shelter beds and a warming center that can be converted into an emergency shelter for another 38 people.

On Wednesday afternoon, several families made use of the sparsely outfitted room that serves as the warming center. One man flipped through a binder of paperwork, while young children ran around, watched cartoons and played with the few well-worn toys that were available.

But even with the new facility, which brought the family shelter capacity up to 151 people, the city has regularly relied on additional overflow space at the Salvation Army, which has been used 105 nights this year, said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.

Preble Street, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to the city’s poor and homeless, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday or Thursday about the impact on its services. But David McLean, the city’s social services director, said the city collaborates with the Salvation Army and Preble Street, where many of the families in the overflow space go for meals three times a day.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to immigrants, said she has seen an increase in families seeking asylum. She said the number of people seeking asylum tends to increase whenever conditions deteriorate in foreign countries. And people fleeing their homelands because of violence or political persecution tend to go where immigrant communities have already been established, she said.

“We have a larger central African community that is seeking asylum, and people tend to go to the places where there are people from the same communities,” she said.

HOUSING TAKES LONGER TO FIND

According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, the civil war in Sudan and violence in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are worsening, while the political crisis in Burundi has not improved. Conditions in Somalia also are listed as worsening, because of the presence of 7,000 to 9,000 troops of the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab in the rural central and southern areas of the country.

City officials also noted an increase in the number of non-citizens at the family shelter in 2013. At that time, 26 percent of the shelter’s residents were not U.S. citizens, compared with only 6 percent the previous year. Now about 86 percent of residents at the family shelter are asylum seekers, immigrants who are moving from other U.S. cities, or people who have so-called Diversity Visas, said Jeff Tardif, manager of the city’s family shelter.

Tardif said the language barrier and cultural norms are the biggest challenges of the demographic shift. He said families can sometimes be in an overflow shelter for 10 to 40 days before getting a unit in the shelter.

Although the city’s housing market is tight, Tardif said his staff is able to find permanent housing for the vast majority of people who come to the shelter. It’s just taking longer. He estimated it takes an average of about 80 days to secure housing now, compared with about 60 days five years ago and 21 days back when he started in 2006. The difficulty of finding permanent housing is contributing to the overflows.

“Usually, more people are coming in than we can house,” he said.

PORTLAND’S WELCOMING REPUTATION

It’s unclear why more immigrants are coming to Portland or if the same trend is happening in other cities. But Portland has earned a reputation for its commitment to being an open and welcoming community for refugees who are part of a formal resettlement process that comes with federal funding, and for asylum seekers, many of whom come to the U.S. with few resources after fleeing war or persecution. Applications for asylum set off a long and complicated process, and asylum seekers are not allowed to work for at least six months under federal law.

MacLean said the city has received phone calls from officials in federal immigration detention centers who say asylum seekers have given a Portland shelter address as their destination.

McLean said officials usually respond by saying that no advance arrangements have been made and that the address is for a city shelter for Portland residents. However, the city has a policy of providing emergency shelter to anyone in need. Also, the city fought state efforts to eliminate asylum seekers from the state’s General Assistance program and then offered local assistance to non-citizens cut off from state funding. The city has budgeted about $210,000 for that assistance in the coming fiscal year.

The city also created an Office of Economic Opportunity, which is designed to help immigrants like Quiteke become better integrated into the regional economy and community and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling has said he’d like to see voting rights extended to non-citizens who are legally present in the U.S.

“Being the only government entity that we know of to provide any type of financial assistance makes us attractive to some folks coming into the country,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “I do think that if this trend continues, that the council will need to have a discussion about whether we can continue to afford (this).”

HARD BEGINNING, DREAMS FOR FUTURE

Public assistance programs vary around the country, and the Portland Press Herald could not determine Thursday whether Portland’s aid program is unique. But Jennings insisted that the city did exhaustive research three years ago and could not find another government entity that provides financial assistance to asylum seekers.

Strimling, however, took a different view, opposing any efforts to tighten up city policy or funding. He said “it’s a good thing” that Portland is viewed by immigrants as a good place to come and the city should make more aggressive investments in affordable housing, including a $10 million infusion into the city’s Housing Trust fund that could include borrowing as much as $5 million and requiring larger development projects to include units affordable to middle income families.

“We have to meet the housing need and we simply haven’t,” he said.

Even with Portland’s resources, life for Quiteke and his family, whose children are ages 21 to 7, has not been easy. They spent nearly four weeks sleeping on mats in the Salvation Army gymnasium and the warming center and eating meals at Preble Street’s soup kitchen before securing a unit, with access to a kitchen, in the family shelter across the road.

“The first day was very difficult for me, my wife and my kids – we had a house and a life (in Angola),” he said. “My kids didn’t understand. They wanted to go back.”

However, Quiteke met others from Angola in Portland who assured him he would get the help he needed to get on his feet. He is looking forward to having his children attend Portland schools and he is eager to file his application for asylum and, as soon as he is allowed, to begin working again.

“Whatever I am doing now is mostly for my family and my kids,” he said. “In five years time, my kids will be at a really high level in terms of English and education. And on my side, I’m a professional. I worked on an oil field for nearly 20 years. And after I have a work permit, I’m going back to do what I know to do best – go back in the oil field, make some money, buy a house and buy a car.”

“I have a lot of dreams,” he said.

Contact Randy Billings at 791-6346 or:

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