This evening, assuming Mayor Claude Morgan can make a last-minute addition to the agenda, the South Portland City Council will show what it means to be a good neighbor.

At issue will be this week’s sudden influx of scores of asylum seekers into the city of Portland, all sent here with little if any documentation after being waved through the Mexican border and put on buses to fend for themselves.

Many are from Africa and speak no English. Many are children who, having fled hunger, violence and untold other traumas, arrive here exhausted and confused about where they are and what happens next.

It’s what has long been referred to as a “Portland problem,” code for the many and varied challenges that beset Maine’s largest city because, well, it’s Maine’s largest city.

But if ever there were a time to raise an oft-ignored question, this is it: Are the communities around Portland doing enough to help share the load?

Or, as the South Portland mayor and City Council will discuss this evening, do changing times call for changing priorities?

“I think this is a council that has a lot of heart and would not wince at this,” Morgan said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’m sure South Portland will rise to the occasion.”

The sooner the better. And not just in South Portland, but in all the other communities that proudly bask in Portland’s prosperity and reputation, only to vanish when talk turns to the difficult business of helping the downtrodden who gravitate toward the Portland peninsula.

Much to their credit, members of the Portland City Council wasted no time on Tuesday directing City Manager Jon Jennings to open up the Portland Expo as an emergency shelter and do whatever it takes to welcome the new arrivals as best the city can.

It will mean more money: Portland’s one-of-a-kind Community Assistance Fund for asylum seekers has already outspent its $200,000 allocation for this year by $86,000.

But to expect Portland to carry this load on its own – the number of asylum seekers coming here from San Antonio alone could well run into the hundreds in the coming days and weeks – is flat-out wrong.

It’s also shortsighted.

“As John D. Rockefeller said, ‘Turn every crisis into an opportunity,’” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said in an interview Wednesday. “And this is an incredible opportunity for our city and for our region.”

He’s right. Political hot button that immigration may be, the simple reality is that Maine grows older by the day and needs all the incoming young families it can attract.

“And the bulk of them are kids,” Strimling noted. “The next generation.”

Across the harbor in South Portland, Morgan echoes that view.

“We want them to settle here, absolutely,” Morgan said. “This is not the beast of burden thrust upon us. It’s absolutely a cultural and economic opportunity for our community and the region.”

South Portland, while lacking an actual shelter or, according to Morgan, space to set one up on a moment’s notice, already has upped its commitment to asylum seekers in recent years. Four years ago, only nine families received benefits from the city’s General Assistance fund; this year, the $615,000 fund offers a lifeline to 67 families who must apply for asylum and then wait to obtain a work permit and get on with their lives.

Still, Morgan said, South Portland’s policies have not kept pace with the ever-evolving waves of immigration to Maine over the past decade. Currently, for example, virtually all of the people arriving here were sent on from the Mexican border without first being “paroled” by immigration officials there – lacking that status, they arrive in Maine ineligible for general assistance.

“This event – the arrivals of these new residents – makes it plain and clear to me that we need to have a Plan A and a B and a C,” Morgan said. “We need to modify and make some arrangement for what I think are going to be some unusual circumstances.”

It might also be a good time to reframe the politics surrounding asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in general. For all the histrionics from those who see every newcomer as a threat to their very identity, countless people in and around Portland already understand that this migration, like so many before it, is interwoven with Maine’s future.

A case in point: Since July of 2017, Greater Portland Family Promise has been quietly using a network of 30 religious congregations, from Cape Elizabeth to Falmouth, to shelter and assist homeless families – the vast majority of whom are new to this country.

The program serves up to 14 people, or three or four families, at a time. Each quarter, a new group spends a week rotating among the Sunday school rooms or other appropriate spaces at 13 host congregations, where they receive meals, a comfortable bed and other support from a cadre of some 800 trained volunteers from all 30 participating congregations.

By day, again thanks to the volunteers, the newcomers go to a day center at the Portland YMCA to shower, do laundry, store their belongings and then head out to school or to search for work or more permanent housing.

The Rev. Ben Shambaugh, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, said some in his congregation were nervous when Greater Portland Family Promise first launched here. They wondered whether the church basement would become a de facto shelter and how that might affect the rest of the church’s daily operations.

As it turns out, Shambaugh said, the four weeks per year that St. Luke’s hosts the families bears no resemblance whatsoever to a shelter.

“Really, it’s having people in your home,” he said. “And it feels like that, which is such a paradigm shift.”

To be sure, a program the size of Greater Portland Family Promise can only do so much. But, as Executive Director Sara Ewing-Merrill noted on Wednesday, there are always ways to pitch in – some of its volunteers soon may deploy to the Portland Expo to help out there.

The point is that it’s time for everyone, from local governments surrounding Portland down to the individual citizens with a few spare hours or a few extra dollars, to step up. To not look at what’s going on down at the Expo as a crisis and see it as a wise and warmhearted investment in our shared future.

“I really hope that we can think creatively and collectively about solutions that aren’t just an emergency response, to think about models and ways for caring for people that are humane and hospitable,” said Ewing-Merrill.

Here’s a big one: Late Thursday, University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings offered a dormitory at the Gorham campus with upward of 200 beds to house the asylum seekers through the first week of August. Cummings said there will be no impact on the university’s budget and he’s confident the state will help pick up the cost of feeding the asylum seekers.

“We know that the city is in a bad spot – and we know these asylum seekers are in a desperate spot,” Cummings said.  “I think the whole community has to look at what they can do under these circumstances.”

Now more than ever, it’s the neighborly thing to do.

 

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