Portland officials are beginning to wind down emergency operations at the Portland Expo, which was converted into a temporary shelter nearly two months ago to accommodate the sudden arrival of hundreds of African migrants who crossed the Mexico border to seek asylum.

City officials have set an Aug. 15 deadline to close the shelter at the Expo, so the arena can be turned over to the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

Officials say that beginning Thursday all new arrivals will be directed to check into the city’s Family Shelter on Chestnut Street, rather than the Expo. The city laid out its transition plan to immigrant community leaders on Wednesday night and informed those staying the Expo on Thursday.

The announcement adds to the urgency of finding housing for more than 200 people still staying at the Expo, said Mufalo Chitam. The executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Chitam is working with community groups to pair migrants with host families in the Greater Portland area.

“We have known about the deadline, but as of today the countdown begins,” Chitam said. “I feel a bit stressed myself about being able to deliver.”

Assistant City Manager Heather Brown said in an email to immigrant leaders Wednesday evening that the move begins the transition back to regular shelter operations, while the city and community groups continue to find permanent or temporary housing for those remaining at the Expo.

The city can accommodate 42 families, on as many as 146 beds, at the Family Shelter, plus an additional 30 people at a warming center on site. And additional 75-80 people can sleep overnight at an overflow shelter at the Salvation Army.

Unlike the Expo, the overflow space at the Salvation Army is not open 24 hours a day, has no services on site and people sleep on floor mats instead of cots. People must report to the shelter at 7 p.m. and must leave by 7 a.m.

“Newly arriving families will be given access to meals at the Expo as well as provided information for other food resources in Portland,” Brown said in an email to community leaders. Other operations at the Expo will not be affected and staff will remain on site, she said.

Portland converted the Expo into a temporary shelter June 12 – only days after learning that 150 African migrants were en route from San Antonio. The migrants are primarily from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And somewhere along their long journey they heard Portland was a good place to seek asylum.

Many of the families escaped violence and persecution in their home countries by taking either a boat or plane to South America, since U.S. visas are hard to obtain. From there, many embarked on a dangerous journey through Central America, traversing deadly terrain – often with young children – and surviving a harrowing trip to reach the southern U.S. border.

With U.S. authorities only letting in a small number of asylum seekers at an official port of entry, many of the migrants crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S., where they encountered border agents and declared their intent to seek asylum. They were processed and released with a notice to appear in immigration court and allowed to continue on to their final designation.

Asylum seekers have a year from their arrival to apply for asylum. And Maine is one of the few states that grants certain noncitizens access to public benefits in the form of General Assistance, a safety net program providing vouchers for housing, food, medicine and other basic necessities.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the city has received 414 migrants since June 9, including 25 over the past weekend and 29 the weekend before that. The total of 10 families received over the past week is still above the six or seven families a week the city was receiving before June 9, she said.

Grondin said the city has placed 48 families, totaling 144 people, in housing units located in Portland, Bath, Brunswick and Lewiston. But 231 people remained at the Expo as of Wednesday night.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning group, has worked with community groups to establish a host home program for the migrant families. Hosts are expected to be able to host a family for one to two months.

Chris Hall, GPCOG’s general counsel and director of regional initiatives, said that 65 families have passed background checks conducted by Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, and are in the process of being interviewed by immigrant community leaders, who are helping pair families at the Expo with hosts.

Housing costs are being covered through a combination of state, local and private funding.

Chitam, of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said that nearly 40 host families have been interviewed and 12 families have been paired with hosts. Only two families have moved out of the Expo, she said, but two more could move by the end of the weekend.

Other families may not move out until closer to the deadline, based on the schedules of the hosts, she said. Immigrant leaders are working hard to find the right matches for the remaining families, but she said that has been challenging, based on the needs of both the hosts and the families.

“It’s a very intense process,” she said. “We want the families who are hosting and the families who are being hosted to be able to live together.”

Unless a new batch of apartments becomes available, nether Chitam nor Brown expects all of the families to be housed by the Aug. 15 deadline. Any families remaining at the Expo after Aug. 15 will be moved to the Family Shelter and its overflow facility.

“Given there were more than 260 people staying at the Expo last night, we will not be able to place every family in advance of August 15,” Brown said Wednesday. “Our expectation is that, at a minimum, all families arriving after August 1st would have been transitioned into overflow on August 15, so this change will help us minimize the number of families transitioning in two weeks.”

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