Graca Lucadji, 3, looks to the Freeport hotel room she and her family moved into last month as she walks down the hall with her mother Carlota, who is carrying Graca’s 1-year-old sister, Adriela. The family is among the 1,700 people the city is sheltering each night. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The city of Portland says it has reached its capacity to provide shelter to asylum-seeking families and has issued a notice that if more families arrive it will not be able to guarantee them housing.

“Please know that as a result of our capacity limitations, if your organization sends a family to Portland, Maine, they are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival to our shelter,” Kristen Dow, director of health and human services for the city, said in an email sent Wednesday to organizations working with asylum seekers on the southern border as well as officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city has seen an influx of asylum-seeking families arriving through the southern border in recent months, including a number of families that recently came from Texas via Washington, D.C., where the governor of Texas has been busing migrants who have crossed the border into his state.

“Additionally, because our staff are spread quite thin, it is not guaranteed that we will be in a position to aid individuals in their search for emergency housing,” Dow wrote in her email. “I ask that you all share this information widely with your organizations and with families you are working with.”

In the first four days of this month, the city saw 30 new families arrive in need of shelter. As of Wednesday, the city was sheltering more than 1,700 people a night, including both families and homeless individuals. By comparison, in the summer of 2019, when the city saw another influx of asylum seekers, a total of about 240 people were being housed nightly at the Portland Expo.



The city hasn’t yet had to turn anyone away, but the interim city manager said it may have to provide families with General Assistance vouchers that they can use to find housing on their own, rather than placing them in the city’s shelter or in one of the hotels or motels across the region that the city is using to help provide emergency shelter.

Under Maine law, municipalities must provide General Assistance aid to people who are unable to cover their basic necessities such as housing, food and electricity. In Portland, the housing vouchers typically range from $1,200 to $2,600 a month depending on the size of a family and limits set by the state.

But if a family in need of emergency shelter is able to establish a rental agreement with a hotel or motel on its own, it’s possible the city could go above the guidelines, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.

City officials said Thursday that they’ve never before had to say that they wouldn’t be able to help people find shelter.

“We don’t take that lightly,” said Interim City Manager Danielle West. “I’m very troubled by having to do this, but there aren’t any other options. We’ve sought and tried to find other emergency solutions that would potentially allow us to move forward, but those have not panned out. We’re left at this juncture where we can’t take anybody else and we have to be upfront and honest with everyone so they understand where we are and what they would be walking into if they were to make the journey to Maine.”

West said city staff has been working with the state to try and find alternative housing solutions, but more help is needed, including from surrounding communities. The need to socially distance and avoid congregate settings during the COVID-19 pandemic is one reason the city came to rely so much on the motels, West said, but the model is not sustainable, financially or otherwise. And right now, hotels and motels are becoming more scarce as tourism season approaches.


“It’s extremely expensive and given that tourist season is upon us it’s even more expensive I think than in the winter months,” she said. “It’s just not something we can continue at this time.”


Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which has been helping asylum-seeking familiesin hotels with meals and other needs, said West and Dow reached out to tell her about the city’s decision. She said the situation points to a need for regional and state coordination around resettlement.

“There has to be collaborative work so we can avoid one municipality saying, ‘We are done,’” Chitam said.

She said the coalition is planning to meet Friday with other immigrant and social justice advocacy groups and nonprofits to discuss what the situation on the ground will look like going forward for people who arrive in Portland – and she does expect people to keep coming.

“Since the beginning of May, the numbers of people coming here are coming through the Texas bus route to D.C.,” Chitam said. “As long as that is continuing, we will continue seeing the numbers. It’s not to say everyone who is coming is coming that way … but once they’re in D.C., that gets them closer to Portland.”


One of the questions the groups will look at Friday will be how asylum-seeking families will be able to search for housing on their own if the city gives them vouchers but no other aid. “People will still come so when people get their voucher, what happens?” Chitam said.

The city’s notice, which also was shared with other community partners, state officials, the mayor and City Council, comes as Portland is working out its budget for next year. The $269 million budget that West proposed last week calls for a 5.5 percent increase in the city side of the tax rate and still includes a $2 million gap the council must work to close.

Inflation is a major driver in increased costs in the budget, but so is General Assistance. The state reimburses 70 percent of General Assistance costs and the federal government also is providing reimbursement to offset the cost of using hotels, but the federal funds are set to expire at the end of June.

Dow said the city is not issuing the same type of notice about housing homeless individuals. “This is specifically for families at this point because at our Family Shelter the numbers are 1,200 (per night) compared to 500 (individuals per night),” Dow said.


Two hotels in South Portland that have been housing homeless individuals have said they will no longer do so after the end of this month, but Dow said the city is looking at being able to move those individuals into a larger congregate site. “So no, it’s not for individuals at this point, it’s just for families,” she said.

Asked about progress in finding an alternative to hotels as emergency shelter, West said the city is looking into possibilities but nothing is final yet. “The details are not fully fleshed out yet, but it would be a larger congregate site we would be looking at and trying to get online,” she said.

West said she also is hoping that a task force Mayor Kate Snyder proposed to study how the city plans for and uses General Assistance will be able to help ameliorate the current situation.

“Maybe the way we’re doing this, the structure, through general assistance and otherwise, is not really the right way. We’ll try to, I hope, look at ways we can do this better and find some potential solutions that maybe we could also pursue in the next legislative session,” West said. “Because right now, what we’re doing, it’s not working.”

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