PORTLAND — Residents across southern Maine responded to ensure asylum-seekers who recently came to the city have the immediate support they need.

But now, a week after opening the Portland Exposition Building to shelter more than 200 people, the city is looking at ways to provide for the new immigrants on a more permanent basis.

While there is “a tremendous amount to be proud of in terms of the reaction of the community to the situation we are facing,” City Councilor Justin Costa said the next step is to figure out how to address it on a more permanent basis.

The influx of asylum-seekers, which caught city officials off guard, took on crisis proportions last week when City Manager Jon Jennings learned hundreds of asylum-seekers were coming to Portland after crossing the southwestern border.

“The border patrol has no say where these people go. If they want to go to Portland, we cannot dissuade them, nor do we pay for their trip to where they want to go,” said Jason Owens, chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Maine at a June 14 meeting of federal, state and local officials.

The people who came to Maine, he said, were released on their own recognizance and given a notice to appear in court for an immigration hearing.

Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, said many Congolese are coming to the community because they heard people in Portland are “welcoming and treat asylum-seekers as people.”

More than 220 asylum-seekers came to the city in the last week after fleeing danger and oppression in The Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As of Sunday night, 212 individuals were staying at the Expo, including 60 families.

Preble Street is providing three meals a day and Hannaford Bros. is working with the city to provide fresh fruit. The city’s recreation staff is creating opportunities for children to play. Mercy Hospital is laundering towels from the Expo daily and Maine Medical Center is laundering bed linens. The Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is offering health screenings, vaccinations and care for children and expectant mothers.

Jennings said the city has received asylum-seekers before, but at a June 12 press conference said the current numbers “are unprecedented.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling has said accepting those seeking a new place to live with open arms is the right thing to do.

“This is what we should be doing to make sure those arriving are taken care of, and we are providing the resources they need as quickly as possible for them to become part of our community,” Strimling said at the June 12 press conference.

Many in the community have offered financial assistance. As of Monday afternoon, more than $350,000 had been donated to help the city’s response.

Jennings said he still doesn’t know how much use of the Expo is costing or will cost the city, but he anticipates it “will be in the ballpark of what we have been seeing in terms of contributions.”

On Monday he said his goal is to transition the Portland Expo Building back into a sports and event space within the next few weeks, but that may depend on whether more asylum-seekers arrive.

Opening the emergency shelter wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of hard work by city staff, Jennings said, including new Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow. It has also been aided by countless volunteers; United Way of Greater Portland and the city teamed up to launch a website for individuals looking to help and, after receiving more than 1,000 offers, is accepting volunteer applications, but not processing the new applications at this point.

“The outpouring of support from the community is remarkable,” Liz Cotter Schlax, president and chief executive of United Way of Greater Portland, said in a statement.

Volunteers are being vetted and will be contacted if their help is needed. People are being asked not to show up to the Expo unless they have been told to do so.

Kristin Chase Duffy, United Way of Greater Portland’s vice president of marketing and communications said volunteers offering interpreting or food service are being prioritized.

Bongibo said the Congolese in the area have been quick to offer their help.

“These are our brothers, our sisters,” he said.

While many individuals have offered their help at the emergency shelter, Welcome the Stranger, a grassroots organization that matches asylum-seekers with mentors, is looking for volunteers to make sure the asylum-seekers transition as smoothly as possible into their new community.

“The response has been quite positive. With a hot-button issue like this, there is always individuals who ask why are we supporting them and not American citizens,” Doug Babkirk, a Welcome the Stranger volunteer, said. “My personal philosophy is, we are all part of this human family. If we ever found ourselves in the same situation, we would want to see a welcoming hand. These people are not here by choice, but are fleeing for their lives.”

Babkirk said since it was formed in 2016, Welcome the Stranger has helped 300 asylum-seekers and their families find medical care, general assistance, housing and other assistance.

Last Friday, city officials met with local, state and federal partners to figure out a more collective approach to the situation, although no specifics were laid out.

“This is not just an issue for the city of Portland. We are all in this together,” Gov. Janet Mills said at the June 14 meeting. “It is an issue that all surrounding communities will be dealing with. I urge other communities to see how they may be able to step up to the plate.”

Those conversations are already starting to happen in South Portland and Westbrook.

At a workshop session June 13, South Portland city councilors discussed how they could assist Portland. South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said staff will form a group to explore spaces that can be used as shelters.  The council was set to vote June 18 on a proposal to donate $40,000 remaining in this year’s general assistance budget to the immigration legal assistance program.

Not everyone, however, sees it as an issue the South Portland council should take up.

South Portland resident Anthony Stokes spoke June 13 in opposition to assisting Portland in resettlement efforts, saying it would put a strain on resources and take away opportunities for people in the local community.

But resident Luke Armond said he applauds his city’s approach because he has lived the experience himself. As a refugee from Burundi who came to South Portland 11 years ago, he arrived without an education, Armond said, but has earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“Most people speaking in opposition have not experienced this personally,” he said. “The bigger question is, are we worth investing in or not? I am proud to be a South Portland resident and raise my children here. We are people who contribute, and we are worth it.”

The City Council in Westbrook also discussed helping Portland, but no specific action was taken or recommendations made. Councilors indicated at a meeting Monday night that they needed more time to figure out the best way to respond.

In addition to potential aid from South Portland and Westbrook, Jennings said Avesta Housing in Brunswick has offered the use of housing it owns on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. Officials from Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine have also offered dorm space. Who would be financially responsible for providing the housing is not yet clear.

USM President Glenn Cummings said Upton-Hastings Hall, which could accommodate up to 200 individuals, would be available until Aug. 3 when athletes and other students begin returning to campus.

Staff writers Krysteana Scribner and Chance Viles contributed to this story. Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter:@mkelleynews

How you can help

Donations to support Portland’s response to the asylum-seekers may be made at http://www.portlandmaine.gov/1554/Support-Asylum-Seekers or by texting Expo to 91999.

A group of children kick a soccer ball around in the Portland Exposition Building, which Portland has turned into a temporary emergency shelter to feed and house asylum-seekers coming from the south.

People wait in the lobby June 13 to be let into the Portland Exposition Building, which is being used as an emergency shelter.

Gov. Janet Mills, left, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree met with Portland officials last week to discuss the city, state and federal response to the arrival of hundreds of asylum-seekers in the city.

A standing-room-only crowd listens in a rehearsal hall at Merril Auditorium in Portland on June 14, when local, state and federal officials discussed the asylum-seekers’ situation.

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