Immigrant community leaders said Thursday that the dozens of migrant families who remain at a temporary emergency shelter in Portland are willing to accept any housing that is offered to them.

“We heard their own voices that they are willing to relocate and they’re willing to go wherever they are sent because any place is better than what they have right now at the Expo,” said Claude Rwaganje, a Congolese asylee and founder of ProsperityME, a nonprofit that assists immigrants, who spoke to families inside the Portland Expo Wednesday evening. “We were so pleased and happy to hear that.”

This appears to reflect a shift in attitude among some of the families. Shelter staff told city councilors Tuesday that offers to move families into housing outside of Portland had been repeatedly turned down, complicating efforts to move migrants out of the basketball arena before a contractual deadline on Aug. 15. That led to renewed efforts to explain the limited options for more permanent housing, something that is in short supply within the city.

“We are very pleased with the progress that has been made since the council workshop and are encouraged by the ongoing dialogue, additional community support, and resources to ensure we’re able to find and transition these families into housing,” said Jessica Grondin, Portland’s communications director.

The city officials had said some asylum seekers were reluctant to leave Portland because they aren’t familiar with the other communities and worried they would not be able to get to Portland to keep appointments with immigration officials, potentially jeopardizing their chances of getting asylum. The city officials also said some migrants had the misunderstanding that they could stay in Portland and not lose access to the city shelter if they say no to other options.

Immigrant leaders who spoke about their efforts Thursday steered clear of the political battle that erupted at City Hall this week.

During a tense meeting Tuesday, several councilors, including mayoral candidate Spencer Thibodeau, accused Mayor Ethan Strimling of spreading misinformation among the families. Strimling denied that and shot back a day later, accusing councilors of using the families as “political pawns.”

“We don’t want this issue to be a crisis of politics,” Rwaganje said. “Instead, this is a humanitarian issue. We understand that.”

Immigrant leaders held a news conference at City Hall on Thursday and thanked city officials for moving quickly to establish an emergency shelter to accept some of the more than 300 asylum seekers who arrived unexpectedly last month. They also thanked Gov. Janet Mills for ordering an emergency rule change to make the new families eligible for state assistance for housing, food and other necessities.

The families are mostly from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After fleeing from violence or political instability, they completed long and dangerous journeys through Central America and Mexico to seek asylum at the southern U.S. border, then chose to come to Portland because they had learned it is a welcoming city with a supportive immigrant community, many of the migrants have said.

Portland’s immigrant community leaders also expressed hope that collaborative efforts by the city, nonprofits, and regional and state governments to place families in either permanent or transitional housing will accommodate many – but probably not all – of the roughly 70 families, totaling 241 people, staying at the Expo by the time the emergency shelter is expected to be decommissioned on Aug. 15.

City Councilor Pious Ali said local immigrant leaders met with families at the Expo for nearly two hours on Wednesday night to make sure they understood the need to accept the housing being offered, or else they would be asked leave the shelter.

If that happens, they would not be able to return for 90 days, according to the city’s current policy. Those remaining at the Expo after Aug. 15 will be moved to the city’s original overflow shelter at the Salvation Army. Unlike the Expo, the Salvation Army is not open during the day, uses floor mats instead of cots and lacks on-site support such as food, medical care and other services.

“We made it clear that Expo will close on Aug. 15,” Ali said. “We described what the (Salvation Army) would look like. When you wake up in the morning, you will be out with your kids and your luggage. Some of us have places to invite you in, but there are not that many of us who own houses here.”

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, speaks at a press conference at City Hall Thursday with other immigrant community leaders. Chitam and others said they spoke with asylum seekers who said they are prepared to take any housing that 1i offered to them. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A city spokesperson said Wednesday that 20 units of housing, including 11 in Ellsworth, had been turned down by families. Officials were concerned that they were losing rare housing opportunities at a time when housing is scarce throughout the region.

At the same time, the Greater Portland Council of Governments is working to roll out a new host home program. Chris Hall, the council’s general counsel and director of regional initiatives, said Wednesday that 130 people inquired about hosting a family and 30 have been vetted and are meeting with immigrant leaders before being allowed to welcome a migrant family for one to two months. During that time, the city will continue to look for permanent housing, and other nonprofits will help provide transportation, cultural sensitivity training, mediation and long-term plans for housing support.

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the nonprofit Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said Thursday that immigrant leaders will provide support services, including transportation to immigration appointments, to the families no matter where they are housed, even 2½ hours away in Ellsworth.

“They are far from here, but we can get there,” Chitam said.

Chitam said that given the city’s housing efforts and the help from host families, she’s confident that many of the families still at the Expo will have some sort of home by Aug. 15. But probably not everyone, she said.

“Right now we have a lot of houses that are open – about 30 houses,” she said. “So in the next 48 hours, you are going to see people move and we have been doing that since yesterday.”

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