Portland’s decision to stop guaranteeing all new asylum-seeking families placement in emergency housing has some neighboring communities concerned about how the steady arrival of newcomers could impact them, and has led to more urgent calls for statewide and regional collaboration.

In South Portland last week, City Manager Scott Morelli told the City Council that South Portland could end up spending between $4.1 million and $17.5 million in General Assistance after state reimbursement. The city’s budget proposal right now calls for $1.2 million for General Assistance.

“There is no question there’ll be some impact. We just need to figure out what it is,” Morelli said.

Portland said earlier this month that rather than continue to guarantee emergency housing for new families arriving in the city, it would give families General Assistance vouchers to find housing on their own. The policy applies to all families, although the vast majority are asylum seekers.

That means that after 30 days, if a family that initially arrived in Portland ended up finding housing in a different community, that community would be responsible for paying its General Assistance.

Right now, Portland is housing a record number of people each night – averaging about 1,750 – and the numbers have grown steadily over the last few months.


“This is really a regional issue if not a state issue,” said Interim Portland City Manager Danielle West. “It’s hard for everybody. We’re all trying to find ways in which to deal with it. The impacts of this, I feel for (other communities) because we experience them on a regular basis as well and I’m happy to talk to anybody that wants to talk about it.”

In Yarmouth, one of half a dozen communities where Portland is currently housing people in hotel rooms, Town Manager Nat Tupper said officials are sorting out the town’s legal rights and obligations regarding General Assistance and thinking about how to address the challenge facing the region.

“I am not in a position to opine on the future costs and burden of responsibility for asylum seekers placed in municipalities outside of Portland’s city boundaries,” Tupper said in an email. “It is safe to guess that it is very costly and inefficient to place asylees in hotels or other emergency housing scattered about.

“Clearly the burden on Portland has been untenable and unfair, and there are very limited options. I suspect that one thing all can agree on is that state government needs to take on a larger and active role.”

In South Portland, Morelli said General Assistance costs could up the city’s tax rate by anywhere from around 5.6 percent to 23.8 percent, on top of a 5.8 percent property tax increase that the council already is considering.

But he said his city needs more time to figure out how big the impact of Portland’s new policy might be.


“We’re just starting to get information and plan to have much more information for the City Council at their May 24 workshop,” Morelli said. “The situation could be entirely different by then depending on whether other funding sources are available. We’ll turn over every rock we can to seek out funding sources other than the property tax.”

Marcel Selemani, a Portland city employee who helps resettle people, walks to visit a recently arrived family at a motel in South Portland in November. Portland continues to house people in a number of South Portland hotels. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland is housing people in a number of South Portland hotels – and city officials have said it will continue to pay the costs associated with people it has already placed in those hotels.

Morelli said South Portland now has to calculate how many people with Portland vouchers may seek out emergency shelter on their own in hotels or elsewhere in South Portland.

“We have the most number of hotels of any community that’s been willing to step up and assist with providing space for those that have been unhoused,” Morelli said. “Certainly people know about that (and might look for housing here).”

In Westbrook, Director of General Assistance and Social Services Harrison Deah said Portland’s decision is likely to have little impact because the city has only been using one hotel there to house people. “The new policy would, however, significantly impact surrounding communities with many hotels that are accepting GA vouchers,” Deah said in an email.

Portland, of course, is also bracing for significant increases in General Assistance costs in the coming year. But city officials say the change in policy – which also takes away the promise that the city can assist incoming families with finding housing – was not driven by budget concerns.


“It’s a staff-driven decision,” said Mayor Kate Snyder. “It’s a capacity-driven decision. … We’ve been tracking reimbursements and advocating for a 90 percent (General Assistance reimbursement) from the state, so of course we’re tracking all this stuff, but it wasn’t a budget-driven decision. It really has to do with can staff be available to provide the services they’ve been providing?”

Portland officials said they understand that the policy change could impact other communities, but it also brings Portland more in line with how many of those other communities administer General Assistance.

“We aren’t going to be doing that above and beyond anymore,” West said. “I don’t see it as a shift of costs, I see it as administering General Assistance in accordance with state law and trying to do it in a way that will be helpful to these families and trying to manage it with the staff we have and the limited resources we have.”

West said the city has begun giving vouchers to families to find housing on their own since saying it would do so earlier this month and is working with community partners like the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to try to get them whatever outside services and assistance is available.

“We have had some families arrive and we have been using this process,” West said. “It’s not perfect, but we’re working on it and have been very appreciative of all the help we’ve received from our partners as well as surrounding communities.”

Right now, the General Assistance money Portland is spending on the roughly 1,750 people it is housing is being reimbursed by the state and federal governments – but West said the city has to provide the money upfront and the federal government can be slow to process the reimbursements.


West said it’s too soon to say how handing out vouchers will impact the city’s budget, which currently includes a 5.5 percent tax increase in the city side of the tax rate as well as an unresolved $2 million budget gap and is based on the number of people the city is housing at the moment.

It’s possible Portland, South Portland and other communities facing an increased need for emergency housing may be able to access federal funds to offset some of the costs, even though the current 100 percent reimbursement of COVID-related emergency housing costs from the federal government is expected to go away in July.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office said that President Biden had signed a bill in March granting a minimum 90 percent federal cost share for public assistance programs, including emergency housing, authorized under emergency declarations made in 2020 or 2021, including a declaration that remains in place for COVID-19.

Portland officials said Friday they have been operating under the premise that they would no longer have federal funding after July and any change to that assumption would be welcome news, but also wouldn’t solve all their problems.

“It doesn’t change the ability to manage the numbers,” Snyder said. “The staff capacity and shelter capacity issues are still there.”

Snyder also said there are questions about whether the city’s current use of hotels and motels would qualify as a COVID expense. “The use of hotels was certainly COVID-driven to allow for social distancing versus a congregate setting,” Snyder said.

“But we are actively trying to move away from the use of hotels recognizing they’re an unsustainable solution to the issue of the need for emergency shelter. Whether or not the federal government would determine shelter in hotels to be COVID-driven, I don’t know. I think we have a lot of questions to answer on that front.”

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