People rally outside the Portland Expo Sunday, July 14, to show support for asylum-seekers who have recently come to the city and are being temporarily housed at the sports arena. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Last month, the city began operating the Portland Expo as an emergency shelter to house and feed approximately 350 people who fled Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With about 240 people still living in the shelter this week, the focus has shifted to finding permanent housing for the asylum-seekers and providing the resources needed to help them transition into the community.

Although city staff and volunteers have made the Portland Expo work as an emergency shelter, City Manager Jon Jennings said the facility “was always meant to be a temporary solution. Now our focus is trying to find them permanent housing.”

Jennings said city officials are working with Maine Housing to find permanent shelter for the asylum- seekers.

Asylum seekers line up for lunch June 19 at the Portland Expo. The city is working with area organizations to find them permanent housing. File

“They are assisting us with finding available units all across the state. This is a statewide issue. We are looking to find 125 to 150 units of housing. We don’t have that here in Portland,” Jennings said.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments’ Metro Regional Coalition has come together to find where available housing stock might be and reached out to see if residents or groups in their member communities might be able to host some of the individuals in private residences.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for people who want to host to learn a little more about our new neighbors, and we think, of course, it’s important for our new neighbors to get integrated into our community,” GPCOG Executive Director Kristina Egan said in a statement. Individuals can sign up by emailing [email protected].

The goal, Jennings said, is to have individuals out of the Expo by mid-August, when the Maine Red Claws take over operation of the building again to prepare for the 2019-2020 NBA G-League season.

Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director, said five families had moved as of July 12 to Brunswick Landing – two from the Family Shelter on Chestnut Street and three from the Expo. Rent for the families is being absorbed by the owner of the buildings and work is being done to make sure the families have basic necessities, including food vouchers.

Helping to find housing, Jennings said, is only one of the ways city staff is helping asylum-seekers in their transition.

Julia Trujillo, the city’s director of economic opportunity, has worked with the ESOL Collaborative, a partnership of Portland Adult Education, the Children’s Museum of Maine, Learning Works, Hope House and In Her Presence, to enroll some of the asylum-seekers in English as a Second Language classes at King Middle School.

Classes will begin for the dozens of individuals enrolled in the four-week program on July 22, Trujillo said. Language assessments were held this week. In Her Presence, an organization that brings immigrant women and the community together, is offering supplemental English language classes.

Trujillo said her office is also planning to conduct a cultural orientation July 15 to help the asylum-seekers “navigate the resources available to them throughout the city.” Additional sessions could be held, she said, as demand dictates.

While work continues to find housing and other services for the asylum-seekers, the city is still trying to decide how to best use more than $800,000 in donations made to help support asylum-seekers. A portion of the donations, Jennings said, could also go into the community support fund, a pot of money set up in 2005 to help asylum-seekers pay for housing, food, medicine, utilities and other basic necessities.

The council has set aside $200,000 for that purpose in this fiscal year. The finance committee is expected July 25 to review the donation before passing it to the full council for official acceptance and a decision as to how to use the money. Jennings said he is still waiting to see what position the state takes on allowing asylum-seekers access to state general assistance funding.

Jennings said he recommends some of the donation money go towards paying the city back for the costs it has taken on to provide the temporary shelter arrangements. That cost, he said, is still not fully known and won’t be until the Expo returns to normal use.

“This is certainly not something that was expected in the budget,” he said.