Officials in Maine’s largest city are asking for help as a growing number of asylum seekers in need of emergency shelter stretches resources and prompts concerns about the upcoming budget.

Portland is currently providing shelter to about 1,150 people per night, more than twice as many as in the summer of 2019, when another influx of asylum seekers meant the city had to house about 440 people and it turned the Portland Expo into a temporary shelter to do so.

“We’ve had to scramble to deal with the resettlement issue ,and it’s not something one municipality the size of Portland should be addressing for the entire state of Maine,” said Interim City Manager Danielle West. “We want to see these families succeed and help them as much as we can, but it is extremely difficult to be able to provide all these services.”

The city has been in ongoing conversations with the state about the issue. West said she and Mayor Kate Snyder are hoping to meet with members of Maine’s congressional delegation this week to talk about the restrictions that bar asylum seekers from getting jobs and the federal funding that is helping to pay for emergency housing.

A volunteer writes down how many meals are needed in each room so they can known how much food is needed as she helps pass dinner to asylum seekers who are living at a hotel in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We just really need help so we’re asking all of these individuals to try and help us handle this issue so these people can be served in the best way they can be,” West said. “No one wants to see us fail and not be able to provide the services these people so desperately need.”

The arrival of asylum seekers, most of whom are coming from African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Portland isn’t anything new. But at a City Council meeting last week, staff told councilors the city is seeing the highest ever nightly averages of people in need of shelter. “Simply put, we are in a crisis situation,” Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow told the council.


The situation has also taken on a new level of urgency as the city heads into budget season. At a workshop earlier this month, Director of Finance Brendan O’Connell estimated the city could spend $30 million this fiscal year on emergency shelter costs – far exceeding the $2.7 million that was budgeted – though federal and state reimbursements will offset those costs.

An asylum seeker walks through the parking lot of a hotel in South Portland on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The city is currently using 10 hotels across five municipalities in addition to its two shelters to house people. In July, the city spent $1.1 million on hotel costs. In December, it spent $2.5 million. It’s not just that more people are being housed in hotels, O’Connell said; the city has also exhausted the supply of cheaper hotel rooms.

“In the beginning we were paying $59 to $79 (per room) per night in the hotels we were using, but now we’re paying $220 per night as Portland has already occupied the inventory of less expensive hotel rooms,” he said.

State law requires municipalities to provide “general assistance” for people who are unable to cover their basic necessities such as housing, food and electricity.

Right now, the state reimburses 70 percent of emergency housing costs and federal funds pay for the remaining 30 percent – so Portland taxpayers aren’t shouldering the increase in emergency housing costs.

But while the federal funds set to expire in April have been renewed in the past, O’Connell said he expects that could change in the coming fiscal year. If the 30 percent reimbursement disappeared but hotel costs remained the same, the city would be looking at a $9 million bill – or a 4.8 percent increase in the tax rate.


“This is the biggest budget challenge we have for next year,” O’Connell said.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers continue to arrive, and many of them families with young children. In 2021, the city took in 307 families – 1,006 people – more than double the 138 families made up of 487 people that arrived in 2020.

The majority of families that arrived last year came in the second half of the year, said Jessica Grondin, a city spokesperson, and in the first three weeks of this year, the city has already taken in 39 new families – about one-third the number of people the city saw in all of 2020.

On Friday evening at one hotel in South Portland, a small group of volunteers from the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition worked to prepare meals for the new arrivals – cassava leaves, chicken and fufu, a dough-like food that is a staple of many African cuisines.

They spent over an hour packing more than 200 individual servings to distribute at three hotels.

Rebecca Mwila, center, Lidia Gomes, right, and another volunteer organize meals at a South Portland hotel for asylum seekers living in hotels in the Portland area. Mwila said she volunteers multiple nights a week with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Private donations and grant money are being used to provide hot meals six nights a week, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the coalition, and other agencies also offer services, such as a weekly English class. But Chitam said the newcomers still face a host of challenges, including transportation, laundry and finding money to pay for phones.


“They are in transition to get into housing,” Chitam said. “That’s the biggest challenge. The hotels are not a home. These are families, people with children. It’s not set up in any way to be comfortable. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s a roof over their head.”

Staff from Portland are coordinating services in nearby communities such as South Portland and Freeport where asylum seekers are being housed in hotels. On Friday, Dow, the city’s health and human services director, said she was emailing back and forth with a lieutenant in the Freeport Police Department about the languages Freeport would need help with in order to communicate with families. Dow said she would like to have a conversation with state officials about what it would look like for the state to take the lead.

“In each community, we’re coordinating these services,” she said. “If the state were to take this over, they could be the one coordinating these services instead of the city of Portland working in Freeport and Old Orchard (Beach) and Westbrook.”

Councilors at last week’s meeting also called on the state, other communities and Portland lawmakers to help. “I think we’re beyond the point of talking,” said Councilor Mark Dion. “I like the idea of task forces and the idea of engaging and collaborating and discussing what should be done. But people are drowning. It’s not the time to discuss what the life ring will look like. We need a life ring.”

Volunteers prepare plates of fufu, cassava leaves and chicken to pass out to asylum seekers living in hotels in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In October, Portland’s mayor sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills asking for help in coming up with solutions to homelessness statewide. Since then, Snyder said, she and West have been meeting regularly with the governor’s staff to discuss funding, staffing and assistance with resettlement efforts.

Snyder said state officials have been supportive but are also facing their own staffing and capacity challenges. “I would say the work with the state is ongoing,” she said. “The partnership feels strong. The recognition that this is an unexpected challenge is front and center for all of us and we need to continue to push for state support, state leadership and state partnerships.”


The governor’s office is aware of the situation in Portland and has been communicating regularly with city officials, said Lindsay Crete, spokesperson for the governor, in an email Friday. In 2019, the state played a proactive role in addressing the arrival of asylum seekers through agencies like the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Emergency Management Agency. 

The Maine CDC assigned public health nurses to work with new asylum seekers at the Expo in 2019 and MEMA provided cots and blankets and coordinated with nonprofits and volunteer organizations.

Today, Crete said, those state agencies are focused almost entirely on pandemic response. “The state recognizes the growing issue, though, shares the city’s concerns and is considering how it might play a constructive role in supporting the city and surrounding municipalities in the short-term,” she said.

In the long term, she said, comprehensive federal immigration reform is needed to expedite both the review of asylum applications and work authorization.

Snyder said the city is eager to talk with Maine’s congressional delegation about the laws governing asylum seekers’ ability to work. “That is the big issue here,” she said. “People are not eligible to work. There’s a long … process to determine whether or not asylum seekers can actually be granted asylum and be here and work.”

Families are averaging about five months in hotels before getting rooms in the city’s family shelter, according to Snyder’s letter to the governor. It usually takes another four months for them to secure housing elsewhere.


“It’s not unusual for someone to be here for a year or more and not be able to work,” Snyder said. “Our economy needs more workers, and it’s a very stabilizing factor for families to have work, so to be prevented from working, which is governed by federal law, is (something we’re focused on.)”

Spokespeople for Maine’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree, said their offices have been in contact with local officials about the asylum seekers.

“City employees in Portland and their partners in the nonprofit community have been doing incredible work to care for migrants, but meeting these humanitarian needs should not fall on the City of Portland or the people of Maine alone,” Collins said in a statement.

She said she would look for ways to support humanitarian efforts and provide relief through federal appropriations, and that Congress could change the law that prohibits asylum seekers from working for an extended period of time and look for a better way of processing asylum seeker claims.

“We are facing a national problem, requiring a national solution,” Collins said.

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