The Portland City Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to accept and allocate over $900,000 in private donations collected to support the unexpected arrival of over 400 asylum seekers this summer.

Councilors put the money into the city’s Health and Human Services budget with the understanding that it would pay for sheltering and basic needs for the migrant families, who were primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.

Monthly reports will be given to the council’s Finance Committee and posted on the city’s website, according to the city manager.

We’re very appreciative of all of the donations that came in,” City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said. 

Portland was informed in early June by officials in Texas that large groups of African migrant families had crossed the southern U.S. border and were en route to Portland.

City Manager Jon Jennings immediately asked councilors for permission to open up an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo. He declared an emergency, the Maine Emergency Management Association set up over 300 cots in the gym and nurses from the Maine Center for Disease Control were stationed on site.

From June to August, nearly 450 migrants checked into the Expo. But a shortage of affordable housing required the city to work with surrounding communities and nonprofits to feed the migrants and find interpreters and housing for them.

Thousands of people from across the country donated money, and the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning group, created a host home program to provide temporary housing for families who could not find permanent housing.

The shelter at the Expo was shut down on Aug. 15 and the 26 people remaining were moved to the city’s Family Shelter on Chestnut Street.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, Jennings was surprised with a leadership award from the Maine Town and City Managers Association for the city’s response. He was nominated by City Councilors Belinda Ray and Jill Duson, and managers from South Portland, Scarborough, Falmouth, Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth sent a letter of recommendation.

Perry Ellsworth, president of the association’s board of directors, said Jennings was chosen for the award at the recent annual meeting, which he could not attend. Ellsworth said Jennings was actually nominated for two of the association’s three awards.

“I’ve been on this committee for a long time and you don’t normally see that,” Ellsworth said. “You really have to be someone special.”

“I have not been this shocked in my life,” said an emotional Jennings, whose daughter was in attendance. “I’m not usually at a loss for words.”

While the top priority of the donations was to meet asylum seekers’ basic needs, the council also decided the money could be used to reimburse nonprofits and other community partners who helped with the emergency response, and to reimburse the city for its shelter operations.

Mavodones stressed that those reimbursements would be only for costs above what nonprofits or the city had budgeted.

Jennings said staff would come up with a process for reimbursing nonprofits.

Several speakers urged the council to use the community support fund to build additional capacity to respond to future mass arrivals of asylum seekers.

Gov. Janet Mills initiated an emergency rule change to make more asylum seekers eligible for General Assistance, a voucher program that pays for rent, food and other basic necessities.

“We feel strongly that the fund should not be used in a way that would supplant (GA) funds,” said Joby Thoyalil, a senior policy analyst with the anti-poverty group Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Thoyalil said asylum seekers often must rely on a patch-work of community service while their cases are pending.

“GA doesn’t cover nearly enough for newly arrived asylum seekers,” he said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.