Sen. Angus King walks with Andrew Bove of the Preble Street Resource Center in Bayside on Friday. King said Portland’s method of offering emergency shelter is more humane than current federal policy. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Sen. Angus King toured Portland’s homeless shelters and the surrounding Bayside neighborhood Friday to see for himself the impacts of record levels of people in need of housing and the effects of the ongoing opioid epidemic.

And he criticized the Trump administration for its treatment of asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border, saying the federal government should stop detaining children and instead support efforts in Portland and other cities to help families stay intact and find housing and work.

Maine’s independent senator spent about two hours touring shelters for adults and families, and meeting with neighborhood residents and local officials to hear their concerns and solicit ideas for solutions. His tour ended at the community policing station across from the Preble Street Resource Center, and there was a heavy police presence along Oxford Street.

King’s visit comes at a time when city officials and residents are struggling to control increasingly belligerent and aggressive behavior by a small group of people suffering from substance use disorder and mental illness – and increasingly a combination of both. Those issues were detailed in the Maine Sunday Telegram report in May.

It also comes at a time when a record number of people – a nightly average of over 520 people for the months of March and April – are seeking emergency shelter in the city. Much of that demand is being driven by families – primarily from Central Africa – who have escaped violence or political persecution with the hope of winning asylum in the United States, secondary migrants and families who are in the U.S. on special visas.

King used the opportunity to continue to advocate for additional federal funding for a variety of initiatives, including treatment and prevention of opioid abuse and affordable housing.

IMMIGRATION COMES UP

U.S. Sen. Angus King talks to reporters during his tour of Portland’s Bayside neighborhood Friday. King made stops at the city’s Family Shelter, the Oxford Street Shelter and the Bayside Community Policing Center. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

King noted a growing national controversy about immigration while visiting the Portland Family Shelter, where about 85 percent of the families are new arrivals to the United States. He said it’s important to stress that asylum seekers are in the country legally, while pursuing a legal process to stay here permanently.

Portland has continually affirmed its commitment to being a welcoming city, willing to help anyone in need. It sees asylum seekers and other immigrants as a key to the city and state’s economic future and has fought at the state level to maintain their eligibility for General Assistance. After some asylum seekers were cut from the state safety net program in 2015, the city devoted over $210,000 in local funds annually to help those folks. And it has a variety of programs, including the new Office of Economic Opportunity, to help integrate immigrants into the economy and community.

The city’s advocacy and investments are being recognized by the immigrant community. Shelter officials said detention centers in Texas have called, because asylum seekers are giving the city’s shelter as their destination.

PORTLAND’S EFFORTS LAUDED

King said Portland’s efforts to provide emergency shelter and then permanent housing to those families is a much more humane – and less costly – policy than the one being executed at the southern border by the Trump administration, which is separating families that present themselves at the border and building detention centers. It’s part of a zero-tolerance policy that Trump hopes will discourage immigration.

Sending more federal resources to communities like Portland, King said, would help ease the burden and save the federal government money. He also said he would continue his push for a bill he introduced in 2015 to allow asylum seekers to get jobs after 30 days instead having to wait at least six months, the waiting period imposed under current law.

“The federal government is spending a lot of money on separating parents from children in Texas and other places, why can’t some of that money come to assist here and keep families together, instead of all of the burden falling on the city?” King said. “If we can get them working sooner while their case is being adjudicated, they’re contributing to the economy and they can contribute to the support of their family.”

He added, “There’s definitely an intersection with federal policy and this local issue.”

Sen. Angus King talks to Bayside residents and Oxford Street Shelter employees Friday. He said that a lack of federal funding to treat mental illness is a factor in the area’s quality of life. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

King also criticized U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for trying to use the Bible to justify the separation of children from their parents, saying it’s “a horrible policy” that will negatively affect those children for years to come.

“As a Christian, it offends me to try to cite Christian principles to justify separating families at the border,” King said.

King spent over an hour meeting with local residents, elected officials, city officials and representatives from nonprofits in the city’s new overflow shelter for families. But when it came to the larger issues affecting Bayside, King had more questions than answers, though he encouraged residents to continue the conversation. He’s been holding meetings throughout Maine in an effort to come up with a solution to opioid abuse.

SMALL MINORITY CAUSING PROBLEMS

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said that 90 percent of the people using the city’s shelters do not cause problems in the neighborhood. “That 10 percent is very active and there are predators who come in and try to take advantage of them,” Sauschuck said.

While King acknowledged that a lack of federal funding to treat mental health and substance abuse disorders is contributing to quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood, he said there were several local decisions that also contributed – most notably the clustering of social services in one neighborhood.

At one point, he asked if Preble Street could decentralize, prompting Donna Yellen, the deputy director of the nonprofit that runs the day shelter, soup kitchen and other programs, to refocus the conversation on the need for increased access to insurance and treatment services.

“I think the major problem is lack of treatment,” Yellen said. “It is not so much there are rich resources in some areas (or) that we’re feeding 300 people at a seating.”

Laura Cannon, a Parris Street resident and vice president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said she was encouraged that King drew attention to the local policies contributing to the neighborhood issues, rather than only focusing on the larger systemic issues. She hopes it will make city leaders more willing to act.



For their part, they are looking to revamp the city’s emergency shelter services and possibly build a new shelter with its own services and soup kitchen, which they expect will cut down on neighborhood nuisance behavior.

“There was something about the way things are set up here now that makes this a little more difficult,” Cannon said. “It’s true these are national and maybe worldwide issues, but we here are dealing with our own specific version of it and the fact that it’s a bigger systemic problem isn’t a reason to not address the situation that we have here in front of us.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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