The Portland City Council voted 9-0 Wednesday night to put off new licensing rules governing emergency shelters, taking the action after councilors called on state leaders to help the city deal with an influx of asylum seekers that is overwhelming the city’s shelter system.

A steady increase in the number of asylum seeking families arriving in Portland from the southern border over the past several months has resulted in the largest number of people living in emergency shelters the city has ever seen, said Kristen Dow, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services division.

“Simply put, we are in a crisis situation,” Dow told councilors in advance of the vote to establish licensing provisions for emergency shelters during a virtual meeting of the council Wednesday night. Dow said the city is currently providing overnight shelter to an average of 1,149 individuals.

The council voted to postpone the new licensing rules governing emergency shelters until June 6 after learning the provisions would cost the city $97,000 for enforcement and staffing. Interim City Manager Danielle West said the funds would be needed to pay the salary and benefits of a full-time shelter inspector. Since $97,000 was not included in the city’s current budget, councilors agreed it would be best to wait until June to determine if and how the city would fund the post.

The Portland City Council voted unanimously in December to reconsider a new licensing program for emergency shelters at its Jan. 19 meeting after voting to pass those rules 7-1 at a meeting in November 2021. The postponement was largely done to allow newly elected city councilors time to study the issue. The rules require all emergency shelters, including the city-run adult and family shelters, to apply for and receive licenses that would require regular neighborhood meetings between service providers and residents unless a waiver is granted. The rules also would limit the number of shelter beds in any given neighborhood.

Several councilors, including Mark Dion and Mayor Kate Snyder, voiced support for the new rules.

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“I think it’s critical that we establish a licensing scheme to manage the relationships between shelters and the neighborhoods they are located in,” Dion said.

Snyder said that the shelter rules went through an exhaustive eight-month review process by council committees, including a workshop earlier this month. “Tonight’s vote is the culmination of a lot of work,” the mayor said.

But several newly elected councilors, including Anna Trevorrow, said they need more time before endorsing the shelter requirements. “I’m not ready to scrap it entirely, but I’m not ready to approve it entirely,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dow’s statement that the shelter system was in crisis resulted in several councilors urging Portland’s legislative delegation to meet with Gov. Janet Mills in the hope that her administration would start to treat the influx of immigrants from the southern border to Maine as a resettlement issue, and not a homelessness issue.

“I hope our Portland delegation is hearing us loud and clear,” Councilor Tae Chong said. “We need to create a regional task force that could find housing for people in communities outside Portland. It’s become a state resettlement issue, not just an emergency housing issue.”

Dow said the city is currently providing shelter to 225 families or 735 asylum seekers from the southern border. Thirty new families have arrived in Portland from the border since Jan. 3, according to a memo Dow presented to the City Council. Hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived in Portland last summer were waiting in area hotels for permanent housing in October because affordable apartments are so scarce. Many have made their way to Maine, traveling from as far as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa.

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“In addition to newly arriving families, as other temporary shelters around the state close, we have also continued to see new intakes coming to the Oxford Street Shelter from outside Portland. In the first 13 days of January, Oxford Street Shelter had 29 new intakes. Of those intakes, 17 were from outside Portland, accounting for 59 percent of our intakes,” Dow wrote. “These increasing numbers have pushed us to the highest nightly average of those in emergency shelters that we have seen to date. With these growing numbers, we continue to have to utilize a combination of shelter beds and hotel placements to shelter both individuals and families. We are using 10 different hotels in five municipalities in addition to our two, 24-hour bed shelters.”

Dow and West, the interim city manager, said the magnitude of people seeking overnight placements is alarming. They said there needs to be a regional approach to emergency homelessness and that the state needs to take the lead in resettlement efforts.

“As we have stated multiple times over the past several months, the resources of our community are being stretched to the point where families and individuals we serve will not have access to the resources they need to be successful,” Dow wrote in her memo.

Councilors reacted by saying it was time for state government and other communities to step up and help Portland.

“I think we’re beyond the point of talking. Look, people are drowning. We need to throw them a life ring,” Dion said. “Everyone feels our pain, but no one is doing a damn thing about it.”


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