Two women and a girl walk back to their rooms at the Quality Inn after receiving backpacks stuffed with supplies from Josh Pobrisolo, a health officer and community paramedic with the city of South Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Shelters in Portland, Maine’s largest city, have been facing a shortage of space at its shelters. Due to the overflow at Portland’s family shelter, the general manager of the Quality Inn & Suites, Michelle Sandman, transformed the South Portland hotel from a place where guests came and went to taking in hundreds of asylum seekers.

Portland’s family shelter has been using 99 out of the 102 rooms, most of them for migrant families. In the past 18 months, the hotel was transformed as part of Portland’s family shelter.  The inn houses about 400 asylum seekers, more than half of them are children. A few of the rooms are rented to local families and veterans in need of shelter. 

Most of the asylum seekers came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Haiti and Brazil and have used the last of their money on bus fare or a plane ticket. The guests only had items they could carry on a bus or plane, they arrive without money, jobs, transportation, regular access to food, clothing and medical care. Most are fluent in French, Portuguese, Lingala or their dominant indigenous language. Since few speak English, many of them rely on cellphone translation apps. Most of the time an interpreter is unavailable to help them communicate. 

Several portions of the hotel have been modified to accommodate the asylum seekers.

In an area that once served continental breakfast is a food pantry that is open 24/7 and is kept stocked by the South Portland Food Cupboard and Wayside Food Programs. The former gym is now a meeting space where social service agencies schedule medical appointments, offer English lessons and hold classes on how to cook well balanced meals in a microwave.

Most guests aren’t prepared for Maine’s cold and snowy winters, showing up wearing flip-flops and T-shirts. The basement of the hotel carries an emergency stash of coats, boots and other winter gear to prepare for the colder seasons. Several buses transport the children staying in the hotel to the various South Portland schools. During the holidays, The South Portland Housing Authority, local businesses, individuals and other groups provided gifts and cookies to parents and children. 

The surge and a flow of asylum seekers surged in the summer of 2019 and then the pandemic arrived. A real estate boom ensued and contributed to a dearth of affordable housing.

Portland’s family shelter on Chestnut Street is always full, with 24 families (66 individuals) housing 165 families (543 individuals) in hotels in the area. Each month family shelters increase, which has led to more hotels to provide shelter, including Old Orchard Beach that was recently added to the roster and officials are still looking for more shelter spaces.  

There are few resources for those seeking asylum. They must apply and wait for official immigration status and permission to work. The process can take up to 18 months to two years. Housing and other basic needs, in the meantime, are covered by the general assistance programs that are funded by municipal, state and federal sources. Applicants must cover their own immigration fees, which includes $500 for a green card that grants permanent resident status to live and work within the United States.

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