Hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived in Portland over the summer are waiting in area hotels for permanent housing because affordable apartments are so scarce.

The exact number is unclear, but officials and agencies working with the new arrivals say the influx is similar in scale to the 450 migrants who came to Maine’s largest city during the summer of 2019, when the Portland Expo was converted into a temporary shelter to accommodate them.

Many have made their way to Maine from the southern U.S. border, traveling from as far as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. More recently, some have come from the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, where an earthquake in August killed more than 2,200 people and displaced many thousands more.

Housing advocates say well over 300 asylum seekers have arrived in recent weeks and have been placed in hotels in Portland, South Portland and elsewhere in Greater Portland. Some are families with children who have been enrolled in local schools.

People seeking asylum have few resources as they apply and wait for official immigration status and work permits, which can take 18 months to two years. Immigrant advocates say most are eager to find jobs in a region strewn with help-wanted signs. In the meantime, their housing and other basic needs are covered by General Assistance programs funded by the state and municipalities.

“It’s really an unmanageable situation, but we are bringing people together to meet their needs,” said state Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland. “Housing is the linchpin that ensures immigrants get the assistance they need to be successful.”

Morales is executive director of the nonprofit Quality Housing Coalition, which formed to solve the housing crisis in Maine. Project HOME, an arm of the coalition that unites landlords, housing advocates and other community resources to help Mainers access housing, has seen 20 to 30 asylum seekers weekly in recent months and has been lucky to find housing for two or three per week, Morales said.

The shortage of affordable apartments also is challenging Catholic Charities Maine and its partners, who are preparing to resettle 67 to 100 Afghan evacuees expected to arrive in Maine in the coming weeks. They come with limited federal funding – $900 per person, meant to last three months – and also are seeking asylum and work permits.

Because asylum seekers aren’t citizens and haven’t acquired official immigration status or work permits, they aren’t eligible for most public housing programs offered through state and local housing authorities, said Cheryl Sessions, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority.

Even if they were eligible, housing is so scarce in Greater Portland, there’s a two-year wait for an apartment in a Portland Housing Authority property, and a five- to seven-year wait on a statewide list of 25,000 people seeking federal Section 8 housing vouchers, Sessions said. And federal regulations don’t allow anyone to jump the line.

“We don’t really have a lot of tools to help in this situation,” Sessions said.

The South Portland Housing Authority usually faces similar restrictions, but it recently agreed to lease apartments to two families who have been staying in a local hotel for a while, said Mike Hulsey, executive director.

This was possible only because the housing authority recently bought land at Bowdoin and Chambers avenues where it plans to build a new maintenance facility. The authority plans to tear down its existing maintenance facility in Landry Village to make way for a proposed 44-unit affordable apartment complex for people age 55 and older.

The site of the future maintenance facility includes a single-family house and a four-unit apartment building. Because it was purchased without government funding, it’s not subject to federal rules that would exclude asylum seekers, Hulsey said.

“There are many issues that usually prevent us from helping asylum seekers,” Hulsey said. “It’s making me rethink how we develop affordable housing.”

A migrant woman sleeps on a cot inside the Portland Exposition Building in Portland in June 2019. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Maine State Housing Authority says the state needs about 20,000 affordable, safe and accessible housing units to stem the shortage. Gov. Janet Mills has targeted $50 million in American Recovery Plan Act funding to help finance affordable housing construction, and she recently named longtime housing advocate Greg Payne to be her senior adviser on housing policy.

But it will be years before that funding results in new apartments.

Jessica Grondin, spokesperson for the city of Portland, acknowledged that the city’s homeless shelters have experienced an influx of individuals and families seeking asylum. But she declined to provide details about how many have arrived, where they are staying or how much it has cost to care for them. She said the city’s Health and Human Services Department is preparing a report for the City Council, due this week.

Twelve new families (47 people) arrived at the family shelter during the week ending Sept. 25, according to weekly service data posted on the city’s website. At that time there were 30 families (87 people) in city shelters and 103 families (336 people) in area hotels. Most of the new arrivals are asylum seekers, immigrant advocates say.

Grondin said the city recently hired a resettlement coordinator to assist families staying in the city’s Family Shelter, many of whom have recently arrived in Maine and are seeking asylum, according to the position’s job description. The new staff member will coordinate services to families as they arrive at the shelter and work closely with state partners, surrounding municipalities, social service agencies, community organizations, churches and property owners to help move the families toward self-sufficiency.

“The position will assist with ensuring wraparound services are being provided to address the growing needs of the newly and recently arrived asylum seeking families through directing case coordination and referrals with municipal programs and external community partners,” according to the job description.

Hope Acts, an agency in Portland that helps asylum seekers and other immigrants find housing and navigate other challenges as newcomers, has seen consistent demand for its services since the first significant influx of asylum seekers in 2019, said Martha Stein, executive director.

The agency operates Hope House, which has five apartments that provide transitional housing for as many as 13 people while they go through the application process for asylum and work permits. These days, many residents of Hope House stay long after that process is completed.

“We can’t push them out because there’s nowhere to go,” Stein said. “The good news is, there are a lot of people working on this problem.”

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