Asylum-seekers being housed in the city’s temporary shelter at the Portland Expo on July 24. The city plans to close the shelter by Aug. 15 and resume using the Expo as a sports arena. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / PPH

PORTLAND — As money continues to trickle in to a fund set aside to help support asylum-seekers, the City Council Finance Committee has decided to use $870,000 in donations to cover the cost of housing more than 200 people sheltered at the Portland Expo.

The item will come up for full council review on Monday, Aug. 12.

“The donation website was very clear in that the city would use any monetary donations to provide shelter, housing and basic necessities, and that’s what we intend to do,” Finance Director Brendan O’Connell told councilors last week.

Donations, O’Connell said, came from 40 states, including $589,000 from people in 266 Maine municipalities.

City Manager Jon Jennings is recommending the donations be placed in the social services section of the Health and Human Services budget to continue covering the cost of housing. The shelter at the Expo must close by Aug. 15, when the building is being leased to the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

Jennings would also like to use some of the money to reimburse the nonprofits and organizations that have provided services at the Expo and also pay back the $200,000 the city has spent on shelter operations.

“The highest priority is to make sure there is funding to make sure folks are housed. I think the second would be to provide assistance for our nonprofit partners, and the third would be to seek some level of reimbursement for the city,” Jennings said. “I think there is a way to do that, but again it is a finite amount of money. It is not going to be ongoing.”

Councilor Jill Duson said she would like to see something added to the city website that updates the public about where the money is going and the fund balance.

“That may alleviate some of the questions that pop up,” she said.

Much of the fund would be used to pay the city’s share of general assistance funding, or to cover the initial cost of moving people to other communities. But it could be used for expenses such as transportation, English language classes, or to provide cell phones.

Councilor Justin Costa, who is also a member of the Council Finance Committee, said he would be open to expanding the funding to cover some of the additional expenses, but “would hate to spend tens of thousands of dollars on transportation, but then run out of money to house people.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling wondered if the money could be used to reimburse the cost host families take on by opening their homes to asylum-seekers through a program the Greater Portland Council of Governments is trying to launch.

Jennings said it would be worth discussing, but “because we have a finite amount of money, I would be concerned about expanding it too broadly.”

Councilor Belinda Ray asked Jennings how much would be used to reimburse nonprofits and the other groups, and which groups would get reimbursed. Jennings said those questions still have to be worked through, but it would only cover the period between June 12 and Aug. 15.

Jennings said he would recommend not seeking reimbursement for the city until after it’s known whether Portland will get any of the $30 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funding that has been set aside to help communities with large numbers of asylum-seekers.

Assistant City Manager Heather Brown said the reimbursement would cover housing and food, but it is unknown if the cost of things like translating services or medication would be reimbursed. Official guidance as to how to apply for the funds was expected to be released this week and the money would need to be distributed and spent by Sept. 30.


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