With time running out to use the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter, city leaders met with community groups Wednesday to work on getting hundreds of recently arrived asylum seekers into homes.

Efforts also are moving forward to launch a temporary homestay program for the migrant families who flowed into the city in recent weeks. More than 100 local families have so far inquired about hosting people who are now sleeping on cots in the Expo.

The basketball arena is sheltering 200 to 250 asylum seekers, the city said in an update for the news media Wednesday. A total of 350 migrants have arrived in the city since June 9, although some have found other places to stay or moved on to other destinations. However, the Expo can’t be used after Aug. 15 because events are planned there, including preparations required for the Maine Red Claws basketball season, the statement says.

City Manager Jon Jennings and city employees met Wednesday with immigrant community leaders to discuss housing options.

The asylum seekers fleeing civil unrest and violence in their home countries arrived in Portland through the southern U.S. border after a treacherous journey through Central America and Mexico. The asylum seekers are predominantly from the Democratic Republic of the  Congo and Angola.

Portland already has a community of immigrants from those two countries, and the migrants chose to come to the city to resettle and pursue their asylum cases in immigration courts. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work until at least six months after filing applications, leaving many to temporarily rely on public assistance.

“Our focus right now is on making sure we can successfully transition these folks into available housing opportunities, as we have always done with past asylum-seeker arrivals. I’m thankful for the support we’ve received from Maine Housing and others who have offered up rental units. The city simply cannot do this all on our own given our resources,” Jennings said in a statement.

Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, was at the meeting and said he’s thankful the city is moving forward with “efforts to assist these asylum seekers and make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of how we can help transition them out of the Expo so they can begin establishing their lives here in Maine.”

The city says it isn’t able to house all of the migrants at its overflow shelters.

“The city is working with a need to find housing for at least 150 people by the August deadline as its previous overflow operations at the Salvation Army and Warming Center can only accommodate 110 people,” Jennings said in the statement. “City staff is working hard with Maine Housing and other community partners to locate available housing options so that people do not have to return to the former overflow operations.”

The other overflow shelter options would be available only for overnight use, and families would have to leave during the day.

Kristina Egan, executive director of Greater Portland Council of Governments, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that a host family program the group is launching, along with efforts by others, will be able to take in most or all of the families sheltered at the Expo.

“We’ve barely publicized this program, and already more than 100 families have inquired about becoming host families,” Egan said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of interest in helping.”

Those interested in becoming a host family can email [email protected], and more details on the effort will be made public next week.

The host family plan by the Greater Portland Council of Governments and a separate effort by the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Coalition should work to avoid a situation where families have nowhere to go when the Expo is no longer available, said Tom Bell, GPCOG spokesman.

Bell said the council is working on a website that will be launched next week, host families will undergo a background check, and members of the immigrant community will help match asylum seekers with families. Families that have a French-speaking family member will be in high demand, he said, as most of the asylum seekers speak French. The Portland-based Council on International Education Exchange is also helping with the logistics of getting the program running, Bell said.

“We don’t have a choice. We have to make this work,” Bell said. “Mainers are proving to be generous.”

Seven families have moved into rental units in the midcoast, the city’s statement said.

 

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.