A group of New England churches delivered a trailer full of winter supplies and personal care products to Portland’s Family Shelter on Monday to help families who have overwhelmed the emergency shelter and have been sleeping on the floor of a Bayside gymnasium.

The items delivered Monday include hundreds of winter jackets, scarves, gloves and hats, as well as thousands of feminine hygiene products, diapers and wipes and more than 100 bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste and cleaning products.

“This is a very large donation,” said Aaron Geyer, the city’s social services program manager.

The family shelter on Chestnut Street can accommodate about 150 people. Demand exceeded that capacity every night in January, forcing the city to open overflow spaces. The Salvation Army’s gymnasium was used on 29 nights that month, with as many as 61 men, women and children sleeping on thin mats on the floor. That trend has continued, according to city officials.

Ella Davie, 16, left, and her mother, Jen Davie carry a tub of toiletries into the family shelter, which has experienced high demand this winter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the surge in demand at the family shelter in December fueled largely by immigrants seeking asylum because of violence or persecution in their home countries. The report included an account of one family’s arduous escape from Angola through Central America and Mexico to the southern U.S. border and, ultimately, to Portland.

Jennifer Davie, 42, of Sanford, said she was moved to act after reading about asylum seekers and the overcrowded city shelter in the Maine Sunday Telegram. Davie said at first the stories of families fleeing violence in their homelands and sleeping on a gymnasium floor left her sad. After thinking about it for a while, she decided to help and engaged her congregation at the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sanford. With the help of 20 kids – from third-graders to high school sophomores – they collected the donations over five weeks.

“I’m a mom of four kids,” she said. “I just had so much respect for this mom I don’t know. If she chose this life, the life she chose to leave must be really bad. I had so much respect for her to take those risks. I feel so blessed that I don’t have to take those risks with my children.”

The effort grew and congregations from Sanford; Portsmouth, Derry, Exeter and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire; and Georgetown, Massachusetts, made donations. The Sanford Unitarian Universalist Church also pitched in.

The reports prompted others to offer help, donations have increased since Maine Sunday Telegram article, a Portland spokeswoman said.

“It’s heartwarming to see our residents and regional neighbors support those who are utilizing our family shelter services,” said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.

Jeff Tardif, program manager at the city’s family shelter, brings in boxes of diapers Monday. The donation shipment was organized by Jennifer Davie, 42, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sanford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The story of asylum seekers overflowing the family shelter also sparked different reactions. After the story was picked up in late January by the Wall Street Journal, conservative commentators such as Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Laura Ingraham and Stuart Varney, as well as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, criticized Portland’s openness and support of asylum-seekers, most of whom come from sub-Saharan African nations.

Maine is one of the few states to provide public assistance for food, housing and other necessities to asylum seekers during a period in which they are prohibited under federal law from working. Most of the asylum seekers in Maine are in the country legally, having entered on a temporary visa or presented themselves at a port of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum to escape political or religious persecution in their homeland.

While conservative critics argue that asylum seekers are a drain on public benefits, a report commissioned by Portland’s Office of Economic Opportunity and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce came to a different conclusion. That report said immigrants contributed $1.2 billion to the Greater Portland metro region’s gross domestic product, paid $133 million in federal taxes and $62 million in state taxes; contributed $57.3 million to Social Security and $14.7 million to Medicare; and helped create or preserve over 1,100 local manufacturing jobs.

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

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