The Portland City Council met Monday to discuss a recent wave of asylum seekers coming to Portland from the United States’ southern border.

But councilors did not solve the biggest challenge facing city staff and the new arrivals who are unprepared for Maine’s cold winter: the need for additional facilities, including a day shelter, for nearly 90 people who are spending nights in a nearby gymnasium, but must leave each morning with all of their belongings.

With over 600 migrant families coming to Portland since June, City Manager Jon Jennings said he’s reached out to Gov. Janet Mills in hopes that her office would be willing take a leadership role in establishing a regional and state response.

“The real critical need is for the governor to intervene from the leadership perspective,” Jennings said. “This is not just a Portland issue. It’s a regional issue.”

About 450 asylum seekers came to Portland between June and August. The city declared an emergency and opened the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter with services, such as food, housing counseling and medical chair onsite.

Mills issued an emergency rule change to expand eligibility for General Assistance to more asylum seekers. The voucher-based safety net program funds food, shelter, medicine and other necessities.

The city just received its first reimbursement of between $25,000 to $30,000 for 70 percent of its costs from the month of July, Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said.

The families were housed in Portland and other communities, including Brunswick and Lewiston. The Expo was closed in August, but is now unavailable because it is the home court of the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team.

But Sue Roche, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides free legal help to asylum seekers, said Friday that the people who arrived over the summer are still working their way through a backlogged immigration system.

Roche said that the summer arrivals are probably still waiting to have their cases entered into the court system and then transferred to the Boston office, if necessary.

“They can’t submit an asylum application until their case is in the court system,” Roche said. “This backlogged system is causing much hardship for many people.”

Since Nov. 18, 52 families, totaling 188 people, have arrived in need of emergency shelter. Nearly all of them are families from the sub-Saharan African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are planning to seek protection from violence and persecution in their homelands.

The families have entered the U.S. at the southern border after an arduous journey through Central America and Mexico, and have boarded buses in San Antonio to come to Portland, which has a reputation for being a safe, welcoming city with an established and growing immigrant population.

The bus tickets to Portland for many families have been funded by Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that typically helps resettle refugees.

Jennings, who met with local officials from Catholic Charities, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has requested that the San Antonio branch no longer send the families to Maine. He said the message was sent because families were being bused to the city’s family shelter and were unprepared for the Maine winter.

“We are not saying as a city that we don’t want asylum seekers coming,” he said. 

Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said the biggest challenge for staff and the new families is the lack of space. A warming center at the city’s Family Shelter on Chestnut Street can only accommodate about 40 people, which is less than half of the total population that currently needs it.

The Family Shelter holds about 150 people in apartment-like settings. Its warming center can accommodate an additional 35 people. After that, the city uses gymnasiums at either the Salvation Army or the YMCA of Southern Maine, which each can house 75 people from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. No services or food are available at the gyms.

Dow said the city has reached out to community partners, but no facility has been identified. She said Preble Street was open to providing space, but its facility would not be available until 1 p.m. And the city would have to staff it.

“If we do find a day space, we don’t really have a staff to oversee that because we’re trying to focus on housing,” Dow said. “When I look at the numbers, it’s kind of staggering to see 188 individuals coming in the last month.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who serves on the Metro Regional Coalition, which comprises seven Greater Portland communities, recently met to begin developing a response plan. But an initial survey of potential facilities listed mostly school buildings, which are not available this time of year.

The University of Southern Maine has offered the Sullivan Gymnasium as a temporary space from Dec. 23 through Jan. 19.

City Councilor Tae Chong said USM has offered to staff the facility, including with student interns, providing some meals and English language classes at no cost to the city.

“They would love to meet with us and work out of some of the details,” Chong said. 

But other councilors were hesitant to rejoice, since USM offered to house asylum-seekers over the summer in dormitories in Gorham, but it didn’t work out, largely because of logistical issues.

But Jennings said he’d look to schedule a meeting with USM to discuss details.

Meanwhile, several councilors acknowledged the need to conduct long-range planning to accommodate future arrivals and expressed support for earmarking some of the community donations for a regional planning effort by social workers and other professionals with experience resettling asylum seekers.

The latest wave comes two months after the city dealt with an unprecedented and unanticipated influx of asylum seekers over the summer. The city declared an emergency and opened the Expo as a temporary shelter, which eventually processed over 450 asylum seekers.

The influx prompted an outpouring of community support through financial donations, volunteering and offers to provide transitional housing to the newly arrived. The city received nearly $1 million in private donations and is accepting applications to reimburse community groups that helped assist the families over the summer. Officials expect to make the first disbursements next month.

O’Connell, the finance director, said the city has received 30 inquiries for reimbursements, but only three applications have been filed.

And the city also received $864,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the costs of operating the city’s Family Shelter through the end of June.

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