Leaders from six Greater Portland communities said during a special meeting Wednesday that they will try to help find housing and other assistance for hundreds of African migrants who arrived in Portland after escaping violence and persecution in their home countries.

Nearly 300 asylum seekers, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, have arrived in Portland during the last week, and most remain in the city’s shelter for homeless families or in the Portland Expo, a sports arena hastily converted into an emergency shelter last week. The migrants, including many young children, entered the U.S. through the southern border after making a perilous monthslong journey through jungles, rivers and mountains of Central America.

Officials from South Portland, Westbrook, Scarborough, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth and Gorham said they would contact landlords and developers in their communities to find vacant housing that could be used to temporarily house roughly 60 families who were staying at the Portland Expo on Wednesday, as well as nearly 30 more staying the city’s family shelter. Along with Portland, the six communities make up a working group called the Metro Regional Council.

In addition, staff from the Greater Portland Council of Governments is looking to establish a process to screen residents who have offered to take in families until their asylum cases are filed and adjudicated. The council of governments provides planning and economic development services to 25 area communities,

“It’s really about getting people out of a basketball arena and into more stable housing,” Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said, describing what he said is  the city’s biggest need. He urged community leaders to get creative, suggesting that seasonal residences and hotels in summer communities such as Saco and Old Orchard Beach be considered as temporary housing.

The University of Southern Maine had offered temporary use of dormitory space to house asylum seekers this summer and had been working with city officials on the logistics to get people out of the Expo. Jennings said Wednesday he was grateful for USM’s offer, but that the city would not move forward with the temporary solution.

“While we are so appreciative of the USM offer and the other offers we’ve received, the city has come to the conclusion that the best course of action at this time is to focus on finding and providing more long-term housing solutions,” Jennings said in a written announcement. “We believe that avoiding short-term housing options would be less disruptive and easier on these families who have already endured so much.”

In addition to addressing the urgent need to help people in the Expo, there was also a signal that the regional response to sudden influx of asylum seekers could also catalyze additional action to address homelessness in general, as well as a lack of affordable housing – issues that the city has pressed with its neighbors in the past without much success.

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray said that the more 200 individuals at the Expo only represented part of the need. She noted that Portland’s city-run and nonprofit shelters host an average of 500 people every night, including 40 to 50 people who are chronically homeless.

“I want to make sure we also look at the existing issue of homelessness, as we have been, with the same sense of urgency, because it will persist as these families find homes,” Ray said. “We’ll still have those 500 (people) without homes.”

Officials from surrounding communities committed to combing through publicly-owned lands to identify any potential properties that could be used to build housing – whether it’s housing for the chronically homeless, the newly arrived asylum seekers or other low- to middle-income families.

Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said his community, and likely others, would need to figure out how to prioritize resources to meet the needs of both newly arrived asylum seekers and the chronically homeless.

“As policymakers, I think we need to have that conversation, as we move into Phase II, of equity and fairness and the biggest bang for your buck with all the resources available,” Poore said. “This may be the subject that’s going help bring the communities more into the conversation about the crisis that Portland has been dealing with.”

The group of communities, collectively known as the Metro Regional Coalition, seemed eager to help. But some, such as Westbrook, said there are limits to what residents in their respective communities would be willing to do.

A woman eats lunch with her young daughter Wednesday at the Portland Expo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said residents were largely supportive about offering help at a meeting Monday. Bryant noted that 78 percent of its General Assistance budget is spent on new Mainers who arrived in the country within the last few years. And a majority of those individuals previously lived in Portland.

“The meeting was very positive, but there was clearly a concern about the financial obligation,” Bryant said. “We do have a significant rental housing stock, but it is very full.”

Portland has received an outpouring donations to assist asylum seekers, having raised nearly $400,000 since last Tuesday. The donations come from more than 2,500 people in 30 states and 226 different Maine communities. But the costs of assistance for the families is sure to exceed those donations and some Portlanders are worried about the long-term costs to the city.

Gov. Janet Mills assured Portland officials last week that the state would provide some assistance, but details have not yet been finalized. And lawmakers are considering a few bills that could expand General Assistance eligibility to new batch of asylum seekers, which would ease the financial burden and make it easier to housing the migrants in other communities.

And Sen. Susan Collins’ office announced Wednesday that the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 30-1 in support of providing $4.59 billion to address the increased pressure on the southern border, including $30 million in federal emergency management funding for communities such as Portland that are struggling to accommodate a surge in asylum seekers.

On Tuesday night, the South Portland City Council voted to donate $40,000 to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that uses pro bono attorneys to help people through the complicated asylum application process.

Two children sit on one of the cots set up for asylum seekers in the emergency shelter at the Portland Expo on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Other coalition communities are looking to follow South Portland’s lead by donating to nonprofits that are helping meet basic needs for asylum seekers. Preble Street, for example, is feeding the migrant families, in part with the help of a $10,000 donation from Unum.

Cape Elizabeth may not have much to offer in the way of housing, but Town Councilor Jeremy Gabrielson said that residents are eager to make financial contributions. The town just needs to know how much and where to send it.

“I think what would be very helpful to me is to be able go to the council meeting with a fairly specific idea of how to help and I think that’s most likely going to be in terms of some financial contribution,” Gabrielson said.

Jennings said he would direct Portland staff to put together a list of nonprofit groups that are assisting with the emergency response and share it with member communities.

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which staffs the coalition, said her group would oversee efforts to establish a process for vetting community members who have offered to host families currently staying in the Expo.

“It’s so encouraging to hear people ponying up assets to help with this,” South Portland Mayor Claude Morgan said.

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