Portland officials said Thursday that more statewide coordination of services for asylum seekers is needed as the state makes plans for long-term housing for newcomers in three communities, as well as a temporary emergency shelter for homeless people in Portland.

“I’m very appreciative of the state’s help with the housing situation, but that’s only one step in the process,” said interim City Manager Danielle West. “That first step, which is the emergency we’re dealing with when people arrive – that’s the part where we’re asking for resettlement coordination by the state. We’ve been asking for that for a while.”

A top housing adviser in Gov. Janet Mills’ administration said Wednesday that the state plans to open a temporary emergency shelter in Portland, possibly by next month, to house about 280 homeless adults. Senior Housing Adviser Greg Payne also said the administration plans to renovate housing units in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick to accommodate up to 140 families seeking asylum.

A teenager holds her little sister as she and her family wait outside of the family shelter in Portland with all of their luggage after presenting there in October. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer, file

The news comes after months of discussion between the city and state about the crisis the city faces with large numbers of homeless people and asylum seekers needing emergency shelter. The city currently provides emergency housing for about 1,750 people nightly, including about 350 families and 545 homeless individuals, in its two shelters and hotel and motel rooms throughout the region.

Most of the families are asylum seekers from African countries including Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 60 new families have arrived since the city announced it wouldn’t be able to guarantee new families shelter, and they have had to look for places to stay on their own with the help of nonprofits and community groups.

“Where we need state leadership and state support is (for) families who continue to come to Maine but don’t fall under that umbrella where we can find them access to hotels and manage their access to services and all of the support for transition that they need when it comes to resettlement,” said Mayor Kate Snyder.


Snyder and West asked state lawmakers for funding for resettlement coordination in a March letter that was also sent to Mills. They asked for money to have a community partner help with those efforts, as well as funds for a temporary shelter so it can avoid using expensive hotel rooms.

This week, 79 nonprofits and community organizations also sent a letter to the governor, congressional delegation and other elected officials asking for a state resettlement office and other resources to help newly arrived asylum seekers.

“Since the fall we’ve been talking with the state about state leadership when it comes to resettlement efforts and the coordination needed to welcome families into Maine and offer them shelter and the supports they need – all kinds of supports, including education and workforce development,” Snyder said.

Newly arrived families need language and legal services, food, shelter, medical services, transportation, mail and education, West said.

“Having someone at the state level to be able to help manage that and coordinate that is really what we’re seeking help with,” she said.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said this week that the governor is reviewing the recommendations from the nonprofit groups and the administration will remain engaged with the city. Crete did not respond to a phone message or email late Thursday afternoon asking about state coordination of services and whether the governor is considering creating a resettlement office.


City officials, meanwhile, are also focused on preparing to open the temporary emergency shelter, though they say many details have yet to be worked out. West said the city is still in “beginning discussions” with the state about how that shelter would be operated and who would lease or buy the property.

“I don’t have exact details to give at this time, but we are working through all those various pieces right now and hope we can address the issue in a timely manner,” West said. She said the location for the temporary shelter has not been finalized.

The temporary shelter would be for homeless individuals, not families, and the city sees it as a way to replace two South Portland hotels that have said they will no longer house homeless people for Portland after the end of this month. Snyder said the hotels may need to make rooms available for a little longer while details of the temporary shelter are worked out.

“There’s a lot of focus and a lot of work right now on getting the 280 individuals or so that are in those two South Portland hotels into a congregate living emergency shelter situation until the homeless services center on Riverside Street opens up in the spring of 2023,” she said, referring to the city’s new 208-bed homeless services center to replace the Oxford Street Shelter.

Two Portland city councilors echoed the mayor and city manager Thursday, saying the state’s plans are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

“I think it’s encouraging, but we need more communication and collaboration from the state and surrounding towns,” said Councilor Tae Chong. He said the state’s plan to house about 140 asylum-seeking families in three communities and pay their rents for up to two years will help reduce the city’s reliance on hotels and motels, but not eliminate it.


“We have about 1,200 asylum seekers. It’s not going to address all 1,200, but it will definitely alleviate some of the problems,” Chong said, adding that he hopes the federal government will continue to provide funding for emergency housing to help cover the costs.

“I think it’s a significant first step,” said Councilor Mark Dion. “We’re clearly lacking adequate housing, and this is a substantial move to try and address that. I’m also pleased because it demonstrates a commitment that the state is going to try and help us, and by us I mean all the metro communities, to deal with this issue.”

Dion said he believes the state can do more to facilitate coordination across communities, but he also recognizes that such an effort takes time. He said asylum seekers represent an opportunity for Maine to fill gaps in the workforce and to grow and strengthen communities.

“We need to facilitate their entry into our communities, into our education system and into the labor market,” Dion said. “That’s not a municipal issue. That’s a state issue – and that’s where I think a fully developed office of refugee resettlement would go a long way to tie those threads together.”

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