Portland is running out of options to temporarily house a growing number of asylum seekers, most from central Africa, as they await permanent legal status and housing in an already saturated market.

The growing crisis prompted members of a Portland City Council committee to issue an urgent call to Gov. Janet Mills and to other municipalities to provide financial aid as well as resources to help the city integrate the new arrivals into American society. The three-person committee, which did not take a formal vote, also urged Portland Mayor Kate Snyder to meet with Mills and other mayors to ask for their help.

“This is not a Portland issue. It’s a state issue,” Tae Chong, chairman of the City Council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, told his colleagues at their meeting Tuesday night. Chong said asylum seekers should be housed across the state, not just in Portland. “It takes political will and leadership from the Blaine House for this to happen.”

Chong and other councilors were reacting Tuesday to an asylum seeker and resettlement program report presented to the Committee by Social Services Director Aaron Geyer. In his report, Geyer said that 478 individuals are either being housed at the city’s family shelter or in one of three local hotels. The hotel housing surge peaked in July, Augusta and September. The cost of their temporary housing – about $1 million a month, according to the city – has come out of the city’s General Assistance fund, which mostly is paid for by the state and federal government.

Councilor Mark Dion, at a meeting last month, requested an update on asylum seekers.

“With capacity at both the shelter and area hotels being reached, we continue to connect with hotel owners in an attempt to locate additional rooms to shelter families,” Geyer wrote. “We have reached out to hotels in Westbrook, Portland, Scarborough, Auburn, as well as the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce to gauge membership interest with regard to potential winter rentals.

“Capacity remains our greatest challenge; as we’ve seen contracted hotels in other municipalities across the state close, we’ve seen a corresponding uptick in the number of individuals and families requesting shelter in the form of hotel rooms in Portland.”

The number of asylum seekers now exceeds the influx of migrants that the city experienced two years ago – which led to the opening of the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter – and the city has been told more are likely to arrive, Geyer wrote. Most are coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries in central Africa, but they are entering the United States through the Mexican border in Texas after traveling north from South and Central America.

The large influx of asylum seekers in 2019 presented a public crisis for the city, but the recent arrivals have happened without much attention. Some of that is likely dictated by the pandemic, which led the city to rely on hotel rooms for emergency shelter rather than congregate settings.

MORE ASYLEES THAN IN 2019

“We’ve always received families seeking asylum, it didn’t just stop after 2019,” Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said Tuesday afternoon. “But it would be a family here and a family there. What’s happened over the last few months is: We’re exceeding what we saw in 2019 but we’re not able to communicate with the Customs and Border Patrol officials in Texas to let them know that we can’t take anymore.”

The current influx has happened largely under the radar, and on Tuesday evening it served to reignite the debate over whether the city has the obligation to bear the responsibility alone.

Dion is concerned that the influx will only worsen and that Portland won’t be able to provide the housing or the resources needed to help families in their new environment.

In his report, Geyer said most asylum seekers who cross the Southern Border can request a destination and Portland continues to be popular especially among individuals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Geyer said most families from Haiti traditionally ask to be relocated to Florida. Geyer said the city and its new Resettlement Coordinator, Chelsea Hoskins, have been in regular contact with Southern Border agencies. Geyer said agencies like the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the International Rescue Committee in Arizona, and Casa Marianella, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit, help the city predict trends and spikes in the numbers of asylum seekers trying to find refuge.

“I need to know if we have any influence in these types of situations,” said Dion, who wanted to know if the city could regulate the number of asylum seekers entering the city. “Are we welcoming these families into the city, only to have put them in a tent?”

“We need to see if we can get all hands on deck,” Belinda Ray, the committee’s third member, said. She said the city should also try to leverage support for dealing with the influx from the United Way. Ray pointed out the city has been quietly housing asylum seekers in hotels, which are nearing capacity. “This issue is much bigger than the city of Portland.”

Asylum seeker is an official designation for those immigrants who leave their countries, often because their lives are in danger, and apply for asylum in another county. Because asylum seekers aren’t citizens and haven’t acquired official immigration status, they aren’t immediately eligible for most public housing programs offered through state and local housing authorities. They also are not allowed work permits for a period, leaving it to the city to provide financial support.

FILLING GAPS IN SERVICE

Even if they were eligible and had the ability to pay, housing is so scarce in Greater Portland that 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.

Geyer referenced some of these challenges in his report.

“Efforts are underway to attempt to fill gaps in service, with a renewed appreciation for everyone working in this space,” he wrote. “However, even with all of the combined efforts, the sheer number of individuals in need of support continues to stretch available resources.”

The city ‘s new resettlement coordinator will set up services for families as they arrive at the city’s family 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.

Jennings said that’s a good step, but he said Portland can’t keep continuing to go it alone when it comes to serving asylum seekers – and everyone else needing services, for that matter.

“I would love to have elected officials come down and spend just one week working with our staff to see with what they have to put up with and deal with,” Jennings said.

In addition to housing, asylum seekers are in need of food and medicine when they arrive in Portland.

“I am genuinely concerned,” Kristen Dow, the city’s director of Health and Human Services, told members of the committee. “We are at a point where I feel the families are not getting the services they need.”

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