Nearly 80 nonprofits and community organizations are calling on the state to take immediate action to respond to an influx of asylum-seeking families into Maine, including opening emergency sites to provide food, shelter and care for urgent medical needs for new arrivals.

In a letter dated Friday, the organizations said the state is facing a humanitarian crisis with asylum-seeking families continuing to arrive weekly in Portland and the city saying earlier this month that it could no longer guarantee housing. “A coordinated, statewide effort is necessary to meet the moment,” the letter says.

The letter is addressed to members of Maine’s congressional delegation, Gov. Janet Mills, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and other elected officials. The organizations that signed the letter include the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the ACLU of Maine, Catholic Charities of Maine’s Refugee and Immigration Services and 76 other nonprofits and organizations.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said her organization and others have been experiencing “a crisis on top of a crisis” since May 5, when the city announced the change in housing policy, and they’ve scrambled to try and find housing for families that continue to come to Portland.

“We should stop responding like we’re in a crisis,” Chitam said. “We should normalize our response by coming up with a coordinated way of tracking and supporting people.”

STATE COORDINATION TOP PRIORITY

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The organizations list coordinated action from the state as the highest priority. Their recommendations include immediately opening emergency sites to provide shelter, food and urgent medical care; the establishment of a task force to coordinate services to asylum seekers; and human and financial resources for the city of Portland.

They also recommend that the state seek best practices from other states that serve asylum seekers and establish a permanent state office to assist in the resettlement of asylum seekers and other underserved populations.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said in an email Monday that the governor’s office received the letter and will be reviewing and considering the recommendations.

In her recent budget change package, Crete said the governor allocated $22 million to create an emergency housing relief fund at MaineHousing to address homelessness, including by providing rental assistance or appropriate housing for people staying in hotels. The supplemental budget also includes $750,000 in grant funding through the Department of Health and Human Services intended for community organizations to support the delivery of wraparound services.

In addition, Crete said the governor has directed Greg Payne, her senior housing adviser, and Maine DHHS to work closely with MaineHousing, Portland city officials and other municipalities to ensure that existing resources are maximized and services coordinated across municipalities. “The administration will remain engaged with the city of Portland, the Legislature and Maine’s congressional delegation moving forward,” Crete said.

FAMILIES STILL COMING

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As of last Wednesday, Portland was housing 343 families, or 1,186 individuals at its Family Shelter and hotels. The vast majority are asylum seekers from African countries including Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those numbers don’t include an additional 545 homeless individuals the city was housing as of last week or 62 families that have arrived since the city’s change in policy May 5.

Officials in Portland said Monday that they support many of the recommendations outlined in the letter and see a need for more state and federal assistance.

“A lot of what they’re asking for in that letter are the same things we’ve been asking for — for state coordination and leadership on this issue,” Snyder said. “We’ve gotten some responses to the city’s requests but it’s not enough. We continue to feel the strain on the city. … We only have so many staff and we have a lot of vacancies so the city is doing its absolute best to manage so many people, but we really need federal- and state-level leadership on this issue.”

Although the city said nearly three weeks ago that it was at capacity, families have continued to arrive in need of housing. The city has limited overflow space that is being used when they immediately arrive and before they’re able to apply for General Assistance. Community groups like the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition have been instrumental in helping people find something more permanent.

The coalition has been able to place some families in hotels or motels, and they’re also sheltering about 40 people in a church in South Portland. Chitam said they asked the city of Portland for mats and blankets and that volunteers and ethnic organizations have been helping provide food and other services.

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“We are running a mini-Expo,” she said, referring to when the city in 2019 opened the arena to accommodate an influx of asylum seekers.

Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, said city staff have been in regular communication with the coalition and other organizations and are grateful for their work and their understanding that the city is at capacity.

“We are trying to coordinate services as people arrive and I see that evolving or continuing to evolve as the systems are put in place, especially if the systems are put in place that Mufalo outlines in her letter and that we really need the state to do in an emergency role,” Dow said. “As that is put in place, or hopefully as it is put in place, then the coordination services from the city will continue to evolve.”

ROLE OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

The group of nonprofits and community organizations also called on the state’s congressional delegation to assist in securing federal funding and resources; to vote against Title 42 restrictions that allow the federal government to turn immigrants away to prevent the spread of contagious disease, and to support policies and legislation to get asylum seekers authorized to work more quickly.

“I share these organizations’ concerns: a humanitarian crisis in Maine is growing, and it demands action on all fronts,” Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement. Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, said her staff has been in touch with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to talk about its concerns and update its leaders on her efforts, which include reintroducing a proposal to reduce the wait period for work authorization eligibility from the current 180 days to 30 days.

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Pingree also worked with Maine’s senators and Mills to ask the Biden administration for an extension of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds that Portland has been relying on to reimburse the cost of emergency housing during the pandemic. The 100 percent reimbursement of emergency costs will continue through July 1.

After that, a federal spending bill will allow for a 90 percent reimbursement from the federal government for public assistance programs, including emergency housing, during the pandemic. Portland officials, however, have expressed concerns about continuing to rely on the funds because they are tied to COVID-19 and because the city is still waiting for reimbursements from the federal government for the current fiscal year.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, has introduced legislation in the Senate to shorten the wait period for work authorizations. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Angus King. In a statement, Collins said the legislation “is a win-win all the way around because it would allow these individuals to work, become self-sufficient and contribute to the local community while their asylum claims are being adjudicated.”

“At the same time, the Biden administration must do more to address the humanitarian, national security and public health crises at the southern border, including keeping Title 42 in place,” Collins said.

Nick Zeller, a spokesperson for Rep. Jared Golden, said the Democrat supports legislation called the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, which he said would help eligible asylum seekers get work authorizations faster “by addressing root causes of the problem and significantly reducing the amount of time that asylum seekers have to wait while their asylum status is determined.”

“The legislation would hire hundreds more immigration judges and processing officers, improve migrants’ access to legal services and non-profit assistance, and take a number of other actions to provide faster and fairer adjudications of asylum claims,” Zeller said in a statement. “The congressman believes that these steps are among those necessary before the administration should consider rolling back Title 42.”

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