Adison Songo, 27, of Angola, rests with his son Brian, 1, at the city’s shelter at the Portland Expo on July 24. The city plans to shut down the shelter by Aug. 15, and anyone who remains could be moved to the overflow shelter at the Salvation Army, which is not open during the day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / PPH

PORTLAND — City staff and community partners are scrambling to find permanent housing before Aug. 15 for asylum-seekers sheltered at the Portland Expo, which must be turned over to the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray, left, and Mayor Ethan Strimling, right, eye each other as she argues July 23 that he has been misinforming asylum-seekers living at the Portland Expo about what can happen if they decline a housing offer. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Social service agencies are ramping up their efforts to do what they can to make sure those at the Expo have the resources they need before and after the emergency operation shuts down.

Judy Katzel, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities of Maine, said the organization is working to provide interpreting services and cultural orientations, so that once they find housing, the asylum-seekers’ transition is as seamless as possible.

The orientations, Katzel said, help people acclimate to their new country and learn where to find the resources they need. Sessions are also provided to businesses and other groups to offer them a “better understanding of working with other cultures.”

“It helps provide people with a better understanding, so they are more comfortable in their interactions and don’t inadvertently do something that may not be taken positively by this population,” Katzel said.

Martha Stein, executive director of Hope Acts, said Program Coordinator Carolyn Graney, Vice President Linda Carleton and others from the organization have been helping at the Expo with English classes, language translation and food preparation. People living at the Expo have also been coming to the organization’s Sherman Street offices for additional English instruction.

Since the needs will continue as time goes on, Stein said Hope Acts intends to remain involved through its Asylum Seeker Assistance Program after the emergency shelter closes down. The walk-in program is available Monday-Thursday from noon-3 p.m. and helps asylum-seekers find housing or jobs, make appointments and connect with literacy professionals and other service providers.

“Anything anybody needs help with,” Stein said, “we do our best to assist with.”

The Salvation Army operates a similar program called “Tools for Life,” a 12-week series of workshops that Maj. Ronda Ferreira, area coordinator for greater Portland, said “teaches people the basic skills they need.”

The workshops, offered at the Salvation Army on Cumberland Street from 10 a.m.-noon Tuesdays, cover topics such as personal finance, job interview skills, internet safety, computer skills, healthy cooking and etiquette. Since the influx of asylum-seekers, Ferreira said, the number of people in the workshops has doubled, along with enrollment in the Salvation Army’s English classes.

“We have been scrambling to provide services,” Ferreira said.

She said a few Salvation Army staffers have gone through the program themselves and now are in a position to “help others navigate the same process they went through before.”

“I think that makes us unique,” she said.

Masey Kaplan, an administrator of Neighbors in Need, said her group provided 60 strollers for individuals at the Expo, and Angela Stone, a group member, has been giving other toddler and baby items to folks through Maine Baby, an effort she started that operates in space at the Root Cellar.

Neighbors in Need is a Facebook group that connects more than 1,500 people from organizations that helps new immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Group members can offer items they don’t need anymore or request items for families they are working with.

Kaplan said the group has had limited involvement in serving those at the Expo thus far, but expects that to change.

“When they get in apartments, we will be hearing from them,” she said, adding most requests are filled within a day’s time.

Acting Social Services Director Aaron Geyer said since June 8, 379 individuals – mostly asylum-seekers from Congo or Angola – have come to the Expo and, as of July 22, 229 were still staying there.

City Manager Jon Jennings said there is no wiggle room for the city to continue operating the building as an emergency shelter beyond mid-August because the basketball team will have to resurface the floor, with new logos, before training camp begins in mid-October.

Several other events are also set to take place in the building before that, including a wrestling tournament, roller derby competitions and recreational programming. Several programs this summer, including basketball camps by the Red Claws and Portland High School, a Creative Portland event and Maine Roller Derby, have been displaced over the last few weeks.

If housing is not found by Aug. 15, people will be transferred from the Expo to overflow space at the Salvation Army, or will have to live on the street.

“Our options are limited and we are running out of time,” Jennings told councilors at a workshop session July 23.

Geyer said as of July 23, 38 households, consisting of 106 individuals, have been placed in housing in Bath, Brunswick, Buxton, Portland, Westbrook and Yarmouth.

To aid the city in its effort, Greater Portland Council of Governments has teamed up with CIEE, a nonprofit intercultural exchange organization headquartered in Portland, and leaders of the immigrant community to develop a Host Home program in which homeowners across the area can accommodate individuals in their homes. Assistant City Manager Heather Brown said 105 people have volunteered to help and are being vetted by CIEE. The goal is to make 40 matches by the deadline.

“We are trying to turn over every stone that may be out there as an option for these individuals,” he said. “The issue we run into is, the longer we delay, those units get taken up because it is a tight housing market,” Geyer said.

The fact of the matter, Councilor Justin Costa said, is “we are not on pace to house the people we need to house by the time we need to house them.”

What complicates the housing effort, Geyer and Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said, is that many people have been refusing the housing offered to them even though it has been vetted and inspected by city staff.

A long-standing city policy requires that a sheltered homeless individual who refuses housing must leave the city shelter, typically within 24 hours. Dow said the policy has not been enforced at the Expo, in part because individuals were confused about the policy and the ramifications of rejecting the housing.

Several councilors argued the confusion was in part due to information Mayor Ethan Strimling provided during his daily visits to the Expo.

“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,” Councilor Belinda Ray said, adding she was “uncomfortable having someone speak on behalf of the city who can’t speak correctly on city policy.”

Strimling acknowledged he told people that they could refuse housing, but said he also told them there were ramifications for doing so.

“Let me be clear, what the families understood from me is we are doing everything we can to find housing … and we will continue to do it and I would encourage you to take whatever housing we can find, because otherwise you will be living in a gymnasium or a shelter or on the street and that is not a good thing,” Strimling said.


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