Michael Lyle plans to spend the weekend preparing his Cape Elizabeth home to host a family of African migrants who are now sleeping in a temporary shelter in Portland. He’ll spend the next few days cleaning, painting and organizing, he said, even though he doesn’t know when, or if, his guests will arrive.

Lyle is one of more than two dozen people in Greater Portland offering to host one of the 70 or so families of asylum seekers who have arrived in Portland since June 9 after completing a long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to cross the southern U.S. border.

The unexpected arrival of so many migrants over the course of a few days prompted the city to declare an emergency and set up an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, a basketball arena where 272 people stayed Monday night.

Homestay arrangements are seen as a way to move families off folding cots in the gymnasium and into home settings while efforts continue to find long-term housing, a process that is likely to take months. But Lyle and the other prospective host families, as well as the families eager to move out of the Expo, will have to wait a while longer. So far, no formal vetting, placement process or coordination of services is in place to connect migrant families to potential hosts.

Those logistics were the subject of a meeting this week organized by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional coalition of municipal officials that agreed to help set up a homestay program for the more than 250 people still staying at the Expo.

Council spokesman Tom Bell said follow-up surveys will be sent to the more than 60 participants at the meeting to gauge their capacity to help. Organizers hope to set up a website soon with guidelines for host families and organizations, and an online application process that will allow for background checks. Meanwhile, anyone interested in hosting a family can send an email to hosthomes@gpcog.org.


Lyle, a 58-year-old divorced father of two children, said he offered to host a family as a way to push back against anti-immigrant attitudes and pay back the generosity he personally received from his neighbors, who were from Guatemala and used to look after his young children.

Instead of getting upset with what’s happening in our country, I decided to take action, because it’s a better use of my energy,” said Lyle, who offers that he’s not religious or liberal. “I’m a human.”

The local immigrant community also is expected to contribute to the effort, particularly to connect asylum seekers with host families.

Claude Rwanganje, who came to the U.S. as a Congolese refugee and is now the executive director of a nonprofit immigrant aid group, Prosperity Maine, said the immigrant community has been helping the migrants by providing interpreting services, collecting donations and preparing food.

Rwanganje said the community is willing to help in any way possible, including providing cultural workshops for host families, tenant workshops for the guests and helping to bridge language barriers.

The Rev. Amelia Edson and her husband, Jacob Edson, have volunteered their home, the Falmouth Congregational Church Parsonage, to house asylum seekers. If their offer is accepted, this bedroom will be used by a beneficiary family. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The newly arrived asylum seekers are not eligible for General Assistance, and federal law prohibits them from working for at least six months after their applications have been filed. Many of the families have to work with immigration courts to have their cases transferred to the Boston area before they can file their applications.


Portland Assistant City Manager Heather Brown said this week that 332 individuals had checked into the emergency shelter since June 9, although some have moved in with family members or moved on to another destination. The city is contractually obligated to empty the city-owned Expo by mid-August and must find short- and long-term housing options for the families, she said.

“There’s an urgency here to find a solution,” Brown said.

It’s not clear how long host families would have to commit to hosting asylum seekers. GPCOG Executive Director Kristina Egan said hosts should plan on housing families through October, when she hopes some seasonal housing in places like Old Orchard Beach will become available for families through the winter.

Portland continues its work to move families into more long-term housing, although it has been slowed as staff has been diverted to the Expo, said Kristen Down, the director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department. The city has hired additional temporary staff to help with housing placements and General Assistance eligibility, she said.

One issue looming over the effort is whether financial resources would be available to get the families into long-term housing.

Portland has received more than $650,000 in private donations to help the asylum seekers, but those funds have not yet been allocated by the City Council.


Gov. Janet Mills said the state would help and her administration is considering opening up General Assistance, a voucher program to meet basic needs for things like housing, utilities, food and medicine, to all asylum seekers. Providing the aid to Portland’s asylum seekers is seen as a possible key step toward long-term housing, but the state has not announced any formal plans and administration officials did not respond to multiple requests for interviews last week.

Two separate host programs could emerge from the effort launched by the GPCOG. One would be operated by faith-based groups or other civic organizations such as Rotary clubs, which can vet and monitor their own members. Another program could be open to the general public, which would require some group to screen applicants and check in on both families and hosts.

Representatives from the Portland-based Council on International Education Exchange, or CIEE, offered to help set up the program. The organization has a network of host families throughout the state who take in international students.

The Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Coalition has been hosting asylum seekers since 2015, according to Carla Hunt, a program coordinator. The organization has hosted more than 40 families, totaling about 150 people, for periods of a few days to a few weeks, through a network of about a dozen active host families from three churches. A roster of 100 volunteers help transport guests to appointments, such as for medical care or to meet with immigration lawyers.

Hunt said families often just need time to rest and plan their future after having made such a treacherous journey – traveling thousands of miles on foot through jungles, clinging to mountains and navigating a network of traffickers through Central America and Mexico – to reach the southern border of the United States.

“We have given them a moment to catch their breath,” Hunt said, noting that other community organizations also provide guidance. “We have learned that rest and space and connection to resources are the priorities, not material things.”


The Rev. Amelia Edson is the pastor at the Falmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, which is part of a network of faith organizations that hosts asylum seekers through Greater Portland Family Promise. Families stay for four weeks at the church before moving on to the next church in the network.

But 30-year-old Edson said she and her husband are ready to take the next step and invite a family into their own home.

“It felt like a wonderful way for us to live our values and live our faith,” Edson said. “We have already opened our church. We are honestly excited about being able to do this. For Jake and I, it would be such a joy to welcome a family into our house.”

Catherine Buxton is also willing to host a family in her one-bedroom apartment in Portland’s Old Port. Buxton, who works for a sexual assault prevention nonprofit and is active in social justice issues, said she has volunteered time sorting donations being collected by Gateway Community Services, when she realized she – and other Mainers – should be doing more.

For the 29-year-old Buxton, that meant giving up some of her privileges as a college-educated, white woman who has never had to worry about having food to eat, a roof over her head or clothes to wear.

“It’s not big or fancy,” she said of her apartment, “but this is the one thing in my life I have the privilege of sharing.”

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