Portland City Councilor Pious Ali speaks about the community support fund at the council’s June 17 meeting. Ali would like to see no deadline for new applications for support. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The City Council is still undecided about how it wants the city’s Community Support Fund to operate in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The council was scheduled to talk about how to operate the fund in the 2020 fiscal year on Monday, June 24, but the meeting was canceled to see if Gov. Janet Mills changes how general assistance is handled for asylum-seekers.

The fund was started in 2015 to cover the cost of basic necessities like rent, utilities, food and medication for asylum-seekers who were not eligible for general assistance.

“The reason we postponed is simply to wait for the governor to figure out what role the state can play and hopefully fix the general assistance situation that Gov. (Paul) LePage created,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said.

In 2015, LePage made legal noncitizens, including those seeking asylum, ineligible for general assistance.

“I very much hope the new administration reverses the LePage-era decision,” Strimling said.

Mills met with local, state and community leaders June 14 to discuss the recent influx of asylum-seekers who are temporally being housed and fed at the Portland Expo.

“This is not just an issue for the city of Portland,” Mills said at that meeting. “We are all in this together.”

Strimling said he expects the council to take up the matter at its July 15 meeting, although if information is available sooner, the fate of the fund could be discussed in a July 8 workshop.

If LePage’s decision is reversed, Strimling said the community support fund could take a much different form.

“That’s why it is important we wait to see what happens,” he said Monday.

Regardless of what Mills does, councilors disagree on how the community support fund should operate after this fiscal year ends June 30.

Councilor Jill Duson said she doesn’t want to accept applications that come in after July 1, while Councilor Kimberly Cook said she would like the fund only to cover families who were already in the program as of April 1. Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali support a measure that would allow all applications to be accepted.

There will be $200,000 available in the community support fund beginning July 1, but that money is not expected to last long, especially if the influx of asylum-seekers that have come to the city this month can apply for assistance through the fund.

At a public hearing June 17, Portland resident John Thibodeau warned the council about the message closing the fund to new applicants would send after seeing so many people respond financially, and with their time, to help those temporarily housed at the Portland Expo.

Barbara Fiore, of Wellwood Road, said she wants to see the fund continue, with no cutoff date, so it can continue to help people like her friend, who came to this country several years ago seeking asylum. The individual, Fiore said, is now a certified nursing assistant and is raising her family here.

“She loves Portland and is a part of the community. I want you to know that, so invest in people like her,” Fiore said.

Erik Brann, an advocate from Homeless Voices for Justice, reminded councilors “the measure of a society is not in how much wealth is generated, but it is in how it treats its less fortunate.”

“Just put yourselves in their shoes,” Jake Kulaw added. “My mother taught me that. I really think it is a moral obligation. It is a humanitarian crisis. This is an opportunity for us to do better.”

Ali Cleveland, a member of Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, said the group would like to see large companies like WEX or MaineHealth be required to pay into the community support fund, and see hotels donate rooms in times of housing shortages. She also urged the city to find ways to build more affordable housing.

“Asylum-seekers are not coming here just because they want to,” she said. “They are fleeing violence, food scarcity, and persecution in their home countries, and are making the obvious decision to save the lives of themselves and their families by coming to the United States.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter:@mkelleynews


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