Asylum-seekers, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, line up for lunch at the Portland Expo June 19. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

YARMOUTH — While the city of Portland continues to work on accommodating all of its more than 300 newly arrived asylum-seekers, town councilors in Yarmouth and Freeport on Tuesday talked separately about what they could do to help.

In Yarmouth, officials agreed in theory to a five-point proposal by Councilor Meghan Casey that included passing a formal resolution of support for the agencies and organizations working to house, feed and assist the asylum-seekers. They also discussed having Town Hall act as a central coordination point for residents who want to help, and agreed offering in-kind assistance might be something the town could do.

Questions arose, however, over Casey’s proposal to use town funds to support the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative, a faith-based organization that’s offered temporary housing and other aid to those seeking help from homeless shelters in Portland for the past three years.

Casey said Yarmouth could also make a donation to the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which is working toward a long-term plan to house the asylum-seekers, who arrived mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola earlier this summer. She also suggested donating to Preble Street, which has been the primary agency working to feed the families temporarily housed at the Portland Expo.

Right now, Casey said, the most urgent need is for temporary housing as Portland tries to transition people out of the Expo and into its family shelters.

That’s where the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative, formed by three local churches in 2015, has stepped up in recent weeks, she said. It has a roster of residents willing to serve as hosts for families that have nowhere else to go, particularly as the family shelters in Portland are at capacity.

On Tuesday, local attorney Cecilia Guecia described her experience hosting a family of four who sought refuge in the U.S. last August.

At first, Guecia said, she was worried about her ability to provide what the family needed, but as she got to know the asylum-seekers, she said, “our home seemed bigger, our lives seemed richer and our resources more plentiful.”

Carla Hunt, co-coordinator of the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative, told the council her organization is doing its best to “scale up” in response to the recent arrivals, about 250 of whom are still at the Expo. While she appreciates the families already acting as hosts, she said it would be great if other people in town would also consider whether they could house people temporarily.

She said people wishing to learn more or sign up as a host family should email [email protected]

Other needs, she said, include volunteers willing to drive people to various appointments or perform other tasks. In addition, Hunt said, the initiative is providing English language learner classes at Merrill Memorial Library.

The newly arrived asylum-seekers, Hunt said, are “mostly fleeing persecution and are wanting to raise their families in a safe place and resume their professions. Hosting has been a wonderful experience to those (in Yarmouth) opening their doors. We’re responding to the situation at the Expo by looking at how we can extend our hosting capacity.”

Councilor Tim Shannon said he liked every suggestion Casey made. “A statement of support is valuable, and as a council we have a podium,” he said.

While the majority of the council supported most of the steps Casey outlined, Councilors Randall Bates, Richard Plourde and Rob Waeldner all said they would not necessarily support using town funds – particularly if the money were sent out of town or if it was used to support a faith-based program.

A final vote is expected at the July 25 meeting.

In Freeport, meanwhile, councilors took public comment on what the town could or should do. So far, the council has considered disseminating information, promoting Host Home programs and using town funds in some way.

Residents who spoke seemed to agree that while they want to help, they prefer not using tax dollars to do so.

“I was offended when I saw the request,” Freeport resident Guy Quattrucci said. “This is inappropriate political engagement. I donate regularly because it is my choice to make and not the town’s. This is not Freeport’s issue. Making the decision for me is inappropriate of the town.”

Others, though, said the humanitarian crisis the asylum-seekers represent requires a robust response.

“The (asylum-seekers) are asking for help because they have nowhere else to turn,” Maura Pillsbury, a member of the Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors, said. “It’s legal for them to seek asylum under the law, and they cannot work while they’re here. I hope that something can be done to support this.”

Abdi Iftin, who immigrated from Somalia five years ago, agreed and said, “There is nothing wrong with having these people with us. They’re human beings and they are here because of their circumstances. We should be excited that people want to come to Maine and join our community, and we should be welcoming and try to help them find places to stay and jobs for them to work.”

Councilors made no decisions Tuesday, but said discussions will continue in the coming weeks.

Staff writer Taylor Abbott contributed to this report.

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