Luyinolula Songa and her daughter Lukenia, both from Angola, in the room they’re living in at the Freeport Inn. The inn is one of the latest hotels in Greater Portland  to begin housing asylum seekers from Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

FREEPORT — Normally the Freeport Inn on Route 1 would already be busy in mid-April preparing for the start of the summer tourism season. Instead, the hotel is canceling reservations through the end of the year.

It won’t stay empty though.

One of its guest buildings is housing families in five rooms and all 40 rooms in a second building are full of new arrivals, many of them asylum seekers from central Africa. The Freeport Inn, which straddles the Yarmouth town line, is the most recent hotel the city of Portland has started using to house asylum seekers in need of emergency shelter.

“We’re going to cancel everything up through January,” said Cynthia Edwards, the Freeport Inn’s assistant manager. “It’s unrealistic for anyone who knows the area to think all these poor families will find housing because there isn’t housing. It just physically isn’t there. For us to say, ‘We’ll only do it (up until a certain date this year),’ that’s an unrealistic thing.”

Portland is now using 12 hotels in six communities to house asylum seekers and homeless Mainers, whose numbers far exceed the capacity of its Family Shelter and Oxford Street Shelter. As of last Wednesday, the city was finding shelter for 1,594 people on a nightly basis. By comparison, at the peak of a 2019 influx of asylum seekers, the city had about 240 people being housed at the Portland Expo, which it opened as a temporary shelter to accommodate them.

Challenges have piled up for the city and surrounding communities as the numbers have grown with no sign of letting up. Earlier this month the interim Portland city manager delayed her presentation of the proposed 2022-23 budget in large part because of a potential funding gap if federal COVID relief dollars being used to help pay for the emergency housing run out as scheduled at the end of June.


In South Portland, the City Council will hold a public hearing Tuesday as it reviews licenses of four hotels that are up for renewal because of complaints and increased calls to police, fire and medical services at the hotels, where homeless people and asylum seekers are staying.

Living in hotels outside city centers can be a challenge for those who struggle to access transportation, medical care and food and Portland has been scrambling over the last several months to not only house people but help meet other needs.

“Over the past seven months, I have continued to reiterate that I was fearful we would reach a point where we were no longer able to provide all the resources to these individuals and families to allow them to be successful – and unfortunately, we’ve reached that point,” Portland Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow told the City Council last week.


She said the city is working to find new housing for the approximately 280 homeless people staying in two South Portland hotels whose owner has said he will not continue to house them after May 31. The city also continues to reach out to state and federal officials for help.

“This is more than one municipality can handle,” Dow said.


Tucked behind a seafood restaurant with views overlooking a large marsh, the Freeport Inn building in Yarmouth is hardly visible from busy Route 1. There are no cars in the building’s parking lot, but all the rooms are full.

Aninha Mbuyi Muka in the room she is living in with one of her children at the Freeport Inn. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Aninha Mbuyi Muka arrived in Maine from Angola on April 3 with her son, 13, and the two teenage children of her late husband. They’re one of about 40 families staying at the hotel. Muka said she faced discrimination as an Angolan who fled the country during its civil war but later returned. She came to fear for her safety while her daughter was in an abusive relationship with an older man who threatened her.

“Even if I were to go to police, and they’re the ones with the authority and the power, they wouldn’t do anything,” said Muka, 52, who spoke Portuguese and was interviewed with the help of an interpreter. “They would tell me, ‘Lady, just calm yourself down.’ I felt like nobody was going to protect me here. I thought tomorrow I could be found dead. My children wouldn’t have a mother anymore. So I decided to leave.”

She said her daughter also started on the journey to the United States, but she doesn’t know where she is now. After initially entering the U.S. through Texas with the three other children, Muka said, she wanted to come to Maine because she saw it as a safe place.

“Maine is very quiet,” Muka said. “There is no violence. We already left a place that was very violent and very dangerous.”

In another room of the hotel, Guylain Lounangou is staying with his 17-year-old daughter. Lounangou, 41, is from the Republic of the Congo and had planned to live with a cousin in Indianapolis. When he arrived in the U.S., however, he found the cousin had only a one-bedroom apartment for her family of three and already was short on space. People he met while he was traveling told him about Maine.


“They said, ‘In Maine … at least you’ll have a roof over your head and you’ll be safe and in slightly better conditions than you were,’ ” Lounangou said through an interpreter.

Lounangou said he is grateful to have a place to stay, but finding transportation and trying to connect with people outside the hotel is challenging.

“It’s a big disadvantage (being so far away from Portland), because we can’t do anything,” he said. “It’s like we’re hidden.”

Guylain Lounangou in the room he is living in with his daughter at the Freeport Inn. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

In the Congo, Lounangou was a flight attendant. On his phone, he has a photograph of himself in uniform. Once, he brought the country’s president to Saudi Arabia, he said. Now, his days consist of bringing his daughter to the school bus in the morning and then waiting all day at the hotel. “I just stay here, day after day after day,” Lounangou said.


A lack of regular and affordable transportation to and from the hotel – about a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland – is one of the biggest challenges Portland is facing with the new rooms in Freeport, said Chelsea Hoskins, resettlement coordinator for the city. Staff also are trying to organize consistent medical care for the families. Many have asked for in-person English classes and for equipment such as slow cookers or rice cookers so they can make their own food.


Hoskins said she is in daily communication with officials in Yarmouth and Freeport and outside groups also are providing help. She spoke of a local pastor who gives people at the hotel rides to the grocery store and appointments.

“I am so grateful for all the community supports, because we’d really be drowning without them honestly,” Hoskins said.

A group of men spend time outside while one of them receives a haircut at the Freeport Inn. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When the city starts housing people in a new hotel in a new community, the ripple effect is immediate. Although people initially come to Portland and the city uses its General Assistance fund to pay for their housing, children enroll in schools near their hotels.

In Yarmouth, 37 new students from the Freeport Inn have enrolled in the school district.

The district had a few English language learners before the influx, Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said, but it didn’t have any students who spoke no English.

“To now have several dozen is certainly a shift in our resources, and we are identifying various options for ensuring their needs are being met,” Dolloff said in an email.


He said it is clear that the district will need to increase staffing in English language instruction, though several part-time employees will work full time for the remainder of the year. That will cost about about $24,000, which he said will come from money saved in other areas over the course of the year.

He framed the challenges in a positive light.

“This is a significant lift for our staff, but also an amazing experience for many staff and students, and the new Mainers are incredibly excited to be entering school,” Dolloff said.

Luyinolula Songa’s 10-year-old daughter, Lukenia, is one of Yarmouth’s new students. The mother and daughter left Angola in November along with Songa’s 21-year-old daughter, who is still in detention in Texas. “Her sister is really sad and stressed about that,” said Songa, 42, through an interpreter.

Lukenia walks back to her room at the Freeport Inn with sandwiches for her and her mother, Luyinolula Songa. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Asked why she left Angola, Songa said it was complicated and there were many problems. “Here they help people,” she said of the decision to come to Maine.

But the week and a half she and Lukenia have been at the hotel also hasn’t been easy.


“It’s really, really difficult to be far away from the center (of the city) because there’s no transportation,” Songa said. “The check (the general assistance program) gives us, once you buy food there’s nothing left. Here there’s nobody around to help you and all I want is to work.”

Yarmouth Community Services, which runs the towns parks, recreation and adult education, has been collecting clothing, financial donations and other items, such as personal hygiene products and diapers, for the families.

Seanu Anne, general manager of the Freeport Inn, said he was eager to offer up the hotel to the city of Portland after seeing news about the housing shortage. “We thought maybe it’s a good idea to help these families in need and also help with the crisis the city is dealing with,” Anne said.

Anne declined to say how much the city is paying to house people at the hotel but he said he plans to make rooms available as long as they are needed. Most of his business comes from people who don’t reserve rooms far in advance, he said, and the inn is working with those who have made reservations to find alternate accommodations.

In general, the city is paying $100 to $300 per hotel room per night, though rates vary by hotel and can change over time, said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. The city is currently being reimbursed for 70 percent of the costs by the state and the remaining 30 percent through the federal government.

Anne said rates at the Freeport Inn typically run around $350 per night in peak tourism season. But, he said, providing the space to the city, while the right thing to do, is also a good business decision, because he worries that staffing challenges this summer would hamper normal operations.

“At this point, we’re helping the families and helping out the city at the same time,” Anne said. “These families are coming from the worst of conditions, fleeing their homes and their countries – and here we have an opportunity to provide them food, shelter and the basic necessities they need. Otherwise we will see this crisis spiral out of control.”

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