The Portland YMCA has been housing asylum seekers since Dec. 9. The arrival of 188 individuals in the last month has once again overwhelmed the city’s shelter capabilities, meaning city staff is looking elsewhere to temporarily house these individuals. Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

PORTLAND — The city has makeshift arrangements for overnight accommodations for the 188 asylum seekers who have arrived in the city in the past month, but has no where for them to go during the day, the City Council was told Monday night.

The 52 African families who have arrived since Nov. 18 via bus tickets paid for by Catholic Charities have to carry their belongings to and from the overnight sites and and seek food and shelter elsewhere during the day.

City staff is scrambling to find housing and other services for them.

Portland Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said because the family shelter on Chestnut Street is maxed out, the families have been spending the night at the city’s General Assistance Office, the Salvation Army and the YMCA.

“We really don’t have space for these families to go during the day, at least not this large a number of families,” Dow told councilors during a Dec. 16 workshop on the topic.

Even if a daytime site is found in Portland, Dow said the city does not have the capacity to staff it because the focus of the staff is to find permanent housing for the new arrivals.

Adding to that challenge, Dow said, people are showing up ill-prepared for the weather and need winter gear.

“These families are arriving not prepared for winter. We have families arriving at the bus station in flip flops and shorts in the middle of the night,” Dow said.

The families also expected to find accommodations like 450 earlier asylum seekers found this summer, when the city set up an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, she said.  Not only did the summer arrivals from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo stay at the Expo, they received meals, medical attention and language services there. Using the Expo, home to the Maine Red Claws, a G-League basketball team, is not an option now because the team is in the midst of its season.

Portland Public Schools has been impacted by the latest influx of asylum seekers as well. Thirty-three children from among the 52 newest families have registered with Portland Public Schools, Dow said.

Jeff Tardiff, the director of the family shelter on Chestnut Street, said the school district has federal money to transport homeless students to and from Portland schools even if they live in another community up to an hour away.

City Manager Jon Jennings has asked Gov. Janet Mills to spearhead a state or regional approach to accommodate the asylum seekers. Councilor Belinda Ray, a member of the Greater Portland Council of Government’s Metro Regional Coalition, said the coalition recognizes a regional approach is needed, but has not been able to figure out what that approach would look like.

The University of Southern Maine may step up to help, at least in the short-term. District 3 Councilor Tae Chong said USM President Glenn Cummings has offered the Sullivan Gym in Portland as housing from Dec. 23 to Jan. 19, along with some meals and English classes, at no cost to the city.

Jennings said details of that arrangement have to be ironed out. USM offered to house asylum-seekers over the summer at dormitories in Gorham, but that plan never came to fruition.

Ray said most sites that serve as emergency facilities in other communities are at schools and not available at least until the school year ends.

Jennings and Dow said it is difficult to anticipate how many more asylum seekers could be coming to the city and when. The United States Conference of Bishops has told Catholic Charities in Texas, where the asylum seekers are coming into the country, to no longer send individuals to Maine and instead send them to warmer climates, Jennings said.

“What we have been told is folks seeking asylum would be diverted to other locations more appropriate at this time of year,” he said.

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