City officials plan to close the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo by Aug. 15 but are finding that many of the asylum seekers who have been staying there don’t want to move to any housing outside the city. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A meeting Tuesday intended to update city councilors on efforts to house over 200 migrant families staying in a basketball gymnasium erupted into a shouting match, including a threat to censure the mayor for allegedly spreading misinformation.

City staff said that efforts to house the migrant families who began arriving unexpectedly on June 9 have stalled.

Last week, the state opened General Assistance to the asylum seekers, creating more housing options for the families. But many are refusing to accept housing outside of Portland, even though the state would help pay the rent and buy other necessities.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

“It’s very frustrating and upsetting for staff to work this hard to find housing for these families and have it turned down over and over,” said Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department. 

Councilors said the city needs to close the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo by Aug. 15 and they endorsed a longstanding city policy that anyone in a shelter who refuses a housing offer made by their caseworker can no longer stay at the shelter.

Councilors and staff placed the blame for the migrant families’ refusal to be housed outside of Portland at the feet of Mayor Ethan Strimling, who said he’s gone to the Portland Expo nearly every day to talk to families since it was designated as a temporary shelter last month.

An interpreter who works for the city expressed concern to her superiors about comments Strimling allegedly made to a group of 30 or so people last week.

Current city policy states that if an individual or family refuses to accept housing found and vetted by their case manager then they can no longer use the shelter. But staff said Strimling’s comments ran counter to that policy, an allegation Strimling firmly denied.

Strimling acknowledged that he told some people that no one was going to make them live where they didn’t want to. But he insisted that he said housing in Portland was hard to find and that they if they refused the housing being offered they would likely remain in the shelter for a long time or end up on the street.

City Councilor Pious Ali backed up that account. However, Councilor Brian Batson, who listened to some of the conversation with the interpreter, said that Strimling also said that he did not agree with the policy.

“You weren’t being very clear,” Batson said. “I felt very confused in the moment, and it felt like everything is up in the air.”

The meeting devolved into a shouting match between Strimling and several councilors, including a rival in the mayoral race, Spencer Thibodeau.

“I understand some people want to make this about me and not about these families. The families are who we need to help,” Strimling said. “I am doing everything I can to help them and they know it and the community knows it.”

But Thibodeau said Strimling was giving the migrant families mixed signals about the city policy. And that mixed messaging could end up hurting those families when the shelter at the Expo is closed on Aug. 15.

“If we are giving any question to anyone about what happens on the 15th that is mixed messaging and that’s the problem,” Thibodeau said. 

At one point, Councilor Belinda Ray, who withdrew from the mayor’s race last month, threatened to censure Strimling, though no motion was made to do so. Ray said the “misinformation” was the real reason the council was meeting.

“We have a member of this body that has been spreading misinformation about the city policy and it is putting people in peril of becoming homeless,” Ray said. “I don’t think we can ignore this issue.”

Interim Social Services Director Aaron Geyer said 379 people have checked into the Expo since June 9. On Monday night, 229 individuals were staying there, he said.

So far, 38 families, totaling 106 individuals, have been placed in housing in Portland, Westbrook, Brunswick, Buxton, Yarmouth and Bath, Geyer said. But in recent weeks, families have refused housing outside of Portland, leading to the loss of available units, including some north of Augusta.

“These housing units come and go quickly,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “This is the real estate market we’re in. We can’t wait forever.”

The Greater Portland Council of Governments is working with immigrant community leaders and the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, to develop a host home program. But that type of housing would only be temporary, as well.

“We are not on pace to house the number of people we need to house by the time we need to house them,” City Councilor Justin Costa said. “We can’t be bending over backwards to be providing a menu of options that doesn’t exist.”

Strimling left the meeting early because of a prior commitment. After that, councilors all said they supported sticking to the Aug. 15 deadline to close the Expo shelter, so the city can maintain commitments with the Maine Red Claws and a host of other events slated to begin at the facility this fall.

Councilors also expressed support for the current city policy of telling people they cannot stay at the shelter if they refuse housing. However, Thibodeau and City Councilor Jill Duson argued successfully that the families who have turned down housing should be given another chance before being asked to leave.

Duson said those families probably don’t understand that when the Expo is closed, they will be moved to the overflow facility at the Salvation Army. That facility is only open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., and no meals, medical care or other services are provided on site.

“I want to be sure the family that’s saying no fully understands what they’re doing,” Duson said. “It’s not a pleasant alternative.”

The Expo was quickly converted into a shelter last month as migrants – primarily from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – began arriving unexpectedly after crossing the Mexican border and making a brief stop in San Antonio. They say they’re escaping violence and persecution in their homelands and intend to seek asylum in the United States.

Some of the migrants have said that word had spread on the long and dangerous trail through Latin America of a welcoming attitude in Maine’s largest city, along with available social services and an existing African community.

The council workshop came two days before its Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss how to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations the city has received to help the asylum seekers.

Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said in a memo to the Finance Committee that the city has raised over $900,000 from over 4,000 people since the migrants began arriving in Portland on June 9.

Staff is recommending using some of that money within the Social Services budget for “sheltering, housing and basic necessities of asylum seekers,” and allocating a portion of the funds to local nonprofits that have been assisting in the relief effort.

O’Connell said that the city has incurred nearly $200,000 in costs in recent weeks associated with sheltering asylum seekers at the Expo. That includes about $115,000 for additional staff and services through July 12 for the unexpected arrival of more than 300 migrants that was not included in the current budget, he said.

“These expenses will be reimbursed from donations made to support asylum seekers,” said O’Connell, noting that donations would not be made to pay administrative costs or items already in the budget. “In addition, city staff is recommending the possible allocation of some of the funds collected go to nonprofit partners that have assisted the city.”

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