Cape Elizabeth resident Scott Lewis serves food to individuals staying at the Portland Expo Wednesday, June 19. The building is serving as an emergency shelter for the influx of asylum seekers who came to the city earlier this month. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — Officials in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland say long-term housing should be the primary focus in helping asylum-seekers in Portland. 

But what those housing options mean, and who would be financially responsible for providing assistance, is still up in the air. 

More than 220 asylum-seekers initially arrived in Portland two weeks ago after fleeing danger and oppression in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. According to Portland Communications Director Jessica Grondin, there were 292 people staying at the Expo as of June 26.

According to Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, who spoke at a June 14 meeting in Portland attended by city and state officials to address to the influx, Avesta Housing in Brunswick has offered the use of housing it owns on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. Jennings also said Bowdoin College has offered dorm space. 

Officials from the University of Southern Maine also offered dorm spacealthough a statement to students on June 19 from President Glenn Cummings said the city declined the university’s offer to provide housing in favor of longer-term solutions. 

South Portland, which has implemented several steps to help Portland with its influx of asylum-seekers, had received more than $2,000 in contributions as of June 25 through a donation page set up on the city website on June 14.

City Manager Scott Morelli said while the use of that money is still up for discussion, the City Council wants to utilize the funds to help with rent for asylum-seekers not covered by general assistance. 

Officials have reached out to about 20 developers and housing operators to see if there is any availability to house asylum-seekers. Morelli said the city is also looking into the possibility of having its own shelter in the future, although there is no schedule for initiating that project. 

“We’ve been pretty clear about our goals and have been making progress on them,” Morelli said. “Some (asylum-seekers) will need general assistance, which usually maxes out after a year. After that, they are working and taking jobs and contributing to the workforce.” 

At a workshop session June 13, city councilors discussed how they could help Portland. Morelli said staff will form a group to explore spaces that can be used as shelters. 

On June 18, the council voted unanimously to donate $40,000 remaining in this year’s general assistance budget to the immigration legal assistance program. The city was not scheduled to speak about asylum-seekers at any upcoming meetings as of June 26. 

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said plans for assistance from his town are in the works, but no decisions have been made or implemented. Finding available housing for asylum-seekers, he said, has been challenging in the suburban community, particularly at the height of summer.

“We are at full capacity, there really isn’t much in Scarborough, and the real challenge is to find them long-term housing,” Hall said. “It remains to be seen whether Town Council will take up the matter or whether there is any official assistance we can actually offer.”

Hall said some inquiries have been made about turning foreclosed homes into housing opportunities, but he wasn’t able to discuss where they were in the process.

“These people are at the mercy of others to care for them, (they) came here in blind faith with children no less,” he said. “With record low employment, we know folks are excited to be here and would love to be contributing members of society. We’re trying to bridge the gap as best as we can.”

Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Matthew Sturgis also said there is a challenge finding housing for asylum- seekers in the community because there is very little space available for rent. He said residents and officials are doing everything they can to contribute to the cause.

Cape Elizabeth town councilors will discuss how the town can assist asylum-seekers when the council meets on July 8 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

“We have the ability to provide human capital as well as donate, and we have information on our website if people want to help, too,” Sturgis said. “Housing is a big issue, but nonprofits, the faith community and municipalities … that’s how we can contribute best.”

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