Pedro Afonso Maria Miguel, right, holds his daughter, Jamila Miguel, 7, as she doses off Thursday in the chairs where they have been sleeping in the overflow space at the Portland Family Shelter. Miguel, his wife Anadia Miguel, center, who is five months pregnant, and their four children are seeking asylum in Maine from their home country of Angola. They are one of the dozens of families who have to sleep in the overflow space at the Family Shelter because there is nowhere else to house them. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As night fell at the city of Portland’s Family Shelter on Thursday, staff were busy cleaning up from the evening meal, stacking chairs and sweeping the floor.

Dozens of people who had just finished eating moved outside to wait in a light rain. Then staff set the chairs up again, sprayed them with a disinfectant and called as many people as they could fit back in.

In a matter of minutes families had reclaimed the plastic and metal chairs that they would call beds that night. Children fell asleep in their parents’ arms or on the floor, while adults scrolled through phones and tried to rest sitting up.

“The conditions are very bad with the kids,” said Firdo Baswa, who is from Angola and has been staying with his 5-year-old daughter at the shelter’s overflow space.

They were among 72 people who slept in chairs Thursday night, in a room that normally holds 36 people sleeping on mats on the floor.

David Malaba calls families one-by-one at the Family Shelter in Portland on Thursday. Families that have been there the longest get called first to claim one of the 72 chairs in an overflow space meant for 36 people sleeping on mats. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

City staff were forced to set up the chairs this week to meet an increase in demand.


They were growing desperate for other options when the state announced new funding Friday for three overnight warming shelters in the city, including one that the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition plans to open at the Salvation Army in Portland in the next two weeks.

“We’re grateful and happy people will be getting out of (the overflow space),” said Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, though she remains worried about the fast pace of new arrivals.

“My fear is we will be at capacity again at the end of this month, but we are so grateful,” Dow said.


The warming centers, which will be funded through April out of the $21 million the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills set aside last month to address a heating and housing crisis, were welcome news for the city and nonprofits that have been struggling with an ongoing influx of asylum seekers on top of a homeless crisis.

In January alone, Dow said, the city took in 151 individual asylum seekers and 63 asylum-seeking families, around 400 people in all. “To put it in perspective, in the summer of 2019 we saw just over 400 that entire summer,” Dow said.


In the first week of February, 18 more families arrived.

The city is housing about 950 people on a nightly basis right now, including asylum seekers and homeless people. That doesn’t include the 72 people who slept in chairs in the overflow space Thursday night or others who found shelter with local pastors or in private homes.

A mother and her two children walk across the street to Pastor Placido Mowa’s home in Portland on Thursday night, where they sleep on the floor in the basement. Mowa is one of a handful of local pastors who have offered to take in asylum seekers at night because of the lack of space in the shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The city is no longer placing people who arrive in hotels outside of Portland, though some families remain in hotels in Portland, South Portland and Freeport. Portland also is continuing to work with the state and Catholic Charities to house about 300 asylum seekers in a hotel in Saco.

“The last few months, I think the numbers we report are not as high (as last spring) because pastors are taking people in or people are not officially in our shelter system, but we’re keeping them in the warming space as we can,” Dow said.

For months after the city announced last May that it could no longer absorb any more families needing shelter, community partners like the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and ProsperityME were helping people find hotel rooms using federal Emergency Rental Assistance dollars.

But funding for that program recently ended, which Dow said may be the reason for some of the increased numbers the city is seeing.


“There’s definitely been a backlog of people who haven’t moved on or gone on to utilize hotels in other communities,” she said. “That backlog really did start to happen once the ERA funding ran out. We knew it would run out at some point, but that’s when people started coming into the day space a lot more.”


City officials said they’ve also noticed a shift in where asylum seekers are coming from. Most still are from central African nations such as Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are heading here from California rather than directly from the southern border.

Three families who were interviewed Thursday with a Family Shelter staff member acting as a translator said they had arrived from California and that churches or community members there had paid for their plane tickets to Maine.

Baswa, 41, said he had a friend from Angola who had gone to Portland, which is why he thought it would be a good place, though Baswa arrived here in January and still hasn’t found the friend. He said he is planning to file for asylum but needs help.

“There are a lot of problems in the country,” Baswa said of Angola, though he said he couldn’t explain in detail.


He said he hopes to find a job, but that for now life is hard. “It’s very difficult to sleep here,” he said. “Imagine three days of sleeping on a chair with your kid.”

Steeve Maboya, a Portland Family Shelter employee, helps set up the chairs that asylum seekers will sleep upright in at in the overflow space in the shelter. The families are all moved outside while staff sweeps and mops the floor after dinner and then they set up and sanitize the chairs before they call the families back inside. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pedro Afonso Maria Miguel, who also is from Angola, came to Portland with his wife, who is five months pregnant, and their four children. He said they also want to file for asylum, and he is hoping to get help at the shelter.

“Our only need is accommodations,” said Miguel, 41. He said that would allow him to be able to take classes and “start my dream in the U.S.”


On Thursday night, Dow and shelter staff were frantically calling schools, the library and community agencies, asking if anyone could set up extra overnight space. They knew the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition had applied for state funding for a warming shelter at the Salvation Army, but they didn’t know if the funding would be granted or when the center would be able to open.

By Friday afternoon, MaineHousing had announced funding for the 13 warming shelters around the state.


Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the coalition, said the organization will be opening a warming center at the Salvation Army at 297 Cumberland Ave. and will have day space set up at the YMCA at 70 Forest Ave, using $266,000 in state funding.

The overnight space will have room for about 70 people, the day space slightly more.

Chitam said the spaces, when they open, will be aimed primarily at immigrants and asylum seekers. “You can’t turn anyone away, but the majority of folks we will be serving will be asylum seekers,” she said.

Until then, Dow said, the Portland Public Schools will make space available to the city on a nightly basis so that people don’t have to sleep sitting up in chairs at the Family Shelter.

“It will be something to bridge the gap between now and when the Salvation Army opens,” she said.

The state also is funding two other overnight warming shelters in Portland. State Street Church has received $150,000 to be able to house one family in need and up to three others after electrical work is completed in their space, according to the application they submitted to MaineHousing.


And Greater Portland Family Promise, which already is providing overnight shelter to three asylum-seeking families, is planning to expand that effort to include up to six families, or 36 people.

Michelle Lamm, the group’s executive director, said that since Thanksgiving the nonprofit has been rotating the three families it is sheltering through different churches.

The money they are getting will allow them to set up space in one location through April.

Families begin to fill the seats inside the Portland Family Shelter’s overflow space on Thursday. Family Shelter employees set up 72 chairs inside that night and filled every single one. They had to scramble to find accommodation for the nine extra people they didn’t have room for in the overflow space that night. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On Friday, Lamm said that the funding “couldn’t come at a better time,” as they were trying to set up their next location, in South Portland, and were worried about getting city approval.

“This is such a savior – to be able to pause to catch our breath and shelter the families in one space,” she said.

Still, those involved with the effort to house asylum seekers in Portland say there is much more to be done at all levels of government.

“We really need to help these families and the city of Portland at this point needs help, too,” Dow said. “As a state we need to figure out with these children who are our future what we want to be for them and how we want to play a role in their history.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: