While city of Portland and state officials work on meeting the immediate needs of asylum seekers who suddenly showed up on the city’s doorstep last week, practical concerns are starting to emerge, such as who is going to pay for their care and how they are going to find housing.

As of Saturday night, 201 people, mainly asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, were staying on cots at the Portland Expo, which has become a makeshift homeless shelter. They arrived in Maine from the southern U.S. border, fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, and were among 252 who have come to Portland over the past week.

Most Portlanders have endorsed an open-arms approach to the asylum seekers, Mayor Ethan Strimling said. As of Sunday, the city had raised more than $250,000 in donations to its Community Support Fund to help people staying at the Expo, according to City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

“I’ve heard ‘thank-you’s and people want to make sure the resources are there,” Strimling said.

The mayor downplayed the costs of caring for the families, saying it represents a small fraction of Portland’s overall budget. “People think this is some huge outpouring of expenses, but there’s no indication that’s the case,” he said

Strimling believes the group will ultimately benefit the city. “Somebody that has worked that hard to get to the United States and to Portland, we want them here,” he said.


But it’s still unclear how much the recent influx will end up costing Portland taxpayers, who are already shouldering the state’s regional demand for social services, including city-run homeless shelters that serve both single adults and families.

Some Portland residents interviewed by the Portland Press Herald said they were proud of Portland’s policies of welcoming the asylum seekers. But others sounded a more cautious tone about what the long-term city taxpayer obligations will be.

Stacey Parolise of Portland says she “feels bad” for what asylum seekers have undergone, but wonders how much it will cost to help them, and whether taxpayers will be asked to pay more. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Stacey Parolise, 42, of Portland, after shopping Friday at the Shaw’s grocery store on Washington Avenue, said she “feels bad” for what asylum seekers have undergone, but that living in Portland is expensive in part because taxes are high. She said she wonders about how much it will cost, and whether taxpayers will be asked to pay more.

“I’m just tired of going to work to pay for everyone else,” Parolise said. “I’m sure it’s going to come from the taxpayers. I can’t afford to buy a house in Portland right now.”

Portland has a well-documented shortage of low-income and affordable housing. Even those already with housing vouchers have trouble getting out of the shelter and into permanent housing.

City officials have said that the asylum seekers who are arriving are not eligible for General Assistance, a safety net program that provides vouchers for food, shelter, medicine and other needs. The state reimburses the city for 70 percent of those costs. Asylum seekers are also not eligible for federal programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.


Since they are ineligible for GA, asylum seekers choosing to stay in Portland would turn to the Portland Community Support Fund, which has received a $200,000 allocation both this year and next. The fund was overspent by April, a month before the current wave of asylum-seekers began arriving in the city last week.

City Manager Jon Jennings said he appreciates the wave of donations to the fund, but they “barely scratch the surface” of the costs of operating the emergency shelter. He remains concerned about the long-term financial impact to residents.

“We know that in the immediacy of a crisis, people are generous, but over time, donations dwindle off,” Jennings said. “Additionally, because these individuals are not GA-eligible, the city is going to be responsible, according to current city policy, for providing them financial support. That total number will depend on how many people decide to stay or come to Portland, and it could be exorbitant.”

South Portland is also mulling whether to help Portland with the asylum seekers, and Gov. Janet Mills and state officials are developing plans to respond to the crisis. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is already in Portland helping with the asylum seekers’ health needs.

But right now, taxpayers like Todd Ricker, a labor advocate with the Maine State Nurses Association, aren’t really concerned about the long-term costs. Ricker said he’s hopeful that state and federal officials will follow Strimling’s lead and do their part to provide whatever assistance in needed, because asylum seekers present an economic opportunity for the city, state and country.

“I’m really proud to pay my fair share of taxes, and if they have to go up some to take care of this in the short term, I have zero problem with that,” said Ricker, who owns a home in Libbytown. When asked if there was a limit to his willingness to see his taxes increase, he replied, “What I’m more concerned about is meeting the emergent need and suffering in our community.”


Jacob Krueger, who lives in the Parkside neighborhood of Portland said people are in crisis and they need help, and that should be the overriding concern. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jacob Krueger, 33, of Portland said people are in crisis and they need help, and that should be the overriding concern.

“I’m very proud to live in a city who will welcome people in need,” Krueger said. “We’re all on this planet together.”

Maxwell Chikuta of Portland, a leader in the city’s Congolese community, said Portland and Maine need young workers, and immigrants can help fill that need.

“The effort to welcome them is going to pay off for us down the road,” said Chikuta, who immigrated to Portland in the early 2000s. He has since earned a doctorate in public policy administration and owns two businesses, including L’Africana Market on Brighton Avenue.

Kat Sowers, 21, who lives on Munjoy Hill, said she likes that Portland has a reputation for being a welcoming city for immigrants.

“I would rather my money go to help these people out rather than many other things we pay taxes for,” Sowers said.


Kat Sowers, 21, of Munjoy Hill says she likes that Portland has a reputation for being a welcoming city for immigrants. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On the other hand, Portland resident Robert Kahn, who recently questioned the city’s social services spending, said it’s hard to estimate the cost because a plan for caring for the asylum seekers is still evolving.

“I don’t think it’s been thought through,” he said, noting that he’s been trying to get an accounting for what Portland spends on social services, but it’s difficult because the costs are spread across multiple city agencies. “We don’t know where we’re going with this, what the costs are.”

Kahn said he isn’t critical of the idea of helping to settle the asylum seekers in Maine, but taxpayers and city officials should be paying attention to the cost.

“I’m concerned about the welfare of these folks and I’m concerned about the impact on the taxpayers,” he said. “I’m not saying these people shouldn’t be here. I just don’t think the mayor has had any thought process of how we do it.”

Dr. Stephen Paulding, 77, of Portland says state taxpayers should pay for the services the asylum seekers need, not city taxpayers. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dr. Stephen Paulding, a retired physician from Portland, said that he considers immigration to a particular state like Maine a statewide issue and so state taxpayers should pay for the services the asylum seekers need, not city taxpayers.

“I think the state should pay the bulk of the costs,” said Paulding, adding that the asylum seekers should be welcomed and helped.


Some city councilors are also voicing concern on behalf of their constituents. On Monday, the City Council will establish rules about who is eligible for the Community Support Fund, which is believed to be the only municipally funded and administered financial aid program for noncitizens in the country.

Next year’s fund is not expected to last long, given the current demand.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram first reported in December about the increasing number of families from sub-Saharan Africa making the long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to the southern U.S. border, where they ask for asylum. Many of the migrants ask to be sent to Portland after learning about the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.

The African immigrants coming to Portland are in the United States legally because they have presented themselves at a legal point of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum. These families are often released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court.

The migrants entered through the southern border and took buses from San Antonio, Texas, to Portland.

In addition to accepting donations online, by phone, check or in person, the city announced a new donate-by-text option. Those interested in donating cash can do so by texting “EXPO” to 91999. And on Friday, the city said the United Way of Greater Portland was coordinating volunteer efforts.

Staff Writers Joe Lawlor and Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.


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