Portland is about to open its new homeless service center. It promises to have everything needed to end homelessness quickly and efficiently for single adults. It should be a remarkably collaborative and effective shelter, something poised to help solve one quarter of all homelessness in Maine. 

Except now, it might not.   

This service center was designed to serve mostly circumstantially homeless single adults. It will also serve a smaller group with serious and persistent mental illness and/or other complexities that make their homelessness more challenging to solve. All the right ingredients are there to meet the full spectrum of need and provide quick exits to housing.   

But Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter has recently morphed to address a new need; the current shelter is serving as the de facto asylum seeker resettlement program for the state of Maine. The shelter has become a holding tank.  

Although Maine desperately needs affordable housing, asylum seekers are not homeless because of that. They are blocked from employment and housing due to federal laws. They have already proven their resiliency and overcome tremendous adversity. Serving them as homeless misses the mark.

At the root, these are people migrating to Maine in search of peace and work. There is plenty of both. 


Maine has an enormous workforce shortage. There are 44,000 unfilled jobs and 24,000 people unemployed. That means Maine needs 20,000 new workers. And here they are – newly arrived, talented, willing and motivated. They would enter our workforce except for one thing. Our federal law requires complex paperwork followed by a six-month waiting period before employment. And during what becomes eight to 12 months, this population is not eligible for any federal assistance. People arrive and patiently wait.

Our federal delegation has been working in the House and the Senate to fix this, but Congress has yet to pass one of the many bills our delegation has sponsored. That leaves Portland in a conundrum.   

This can be solved. 

The state and federal government could collaborate to create an asylum seeker resettlement program including temporary living space, connections to work sectors and support from immigrant service programs like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Program. That way, our state could welcome this willing workforce and fast-track it into the many employment sectors desperate for workers. Gainful employment would position asylum seekers to pay for housing and make a peaceful living in Maine. But Maine does not have any such program.   

Portland is, without question, doing the right thing to meet the temporary needs of the asylum seeker population. But we must also recognize these are skilled survivors who follow all the rules and dutifully line up to secure a bed, inadvertently displacing populations we had intended to serve in the new Homeless Service Center. Some 60% of Oxford Street Shelter’s current population are asylum seekers. The city expects that will approach 100% very quickly; there is a long line at the border of people practiced at enduring hardships – and ready and willing to work.   

The unintended consequence is that Maine’s most challenged homeless populations are now landing outside, unsheltered and at tremendous risk because Portland can’t meet the needs of both populations simultaneously, at least not without more help.   

The new, well-designed center for serving people experiencing homelessness might not do what we hoped it would; we may see displacement overwhelm other parts of Maine, more people outside, more encampments and people very visible on the streets, right as it opens. And people will look at this and say: Well, that new service center didn’t work, did it? That, sadly, might thwart other wise investments in ending homelessness.   

We should welcome arriving asylum seekers as a wonderful opportunity, and we should help this population establish itself quickly and successfully. And we should end homelessness. We need a two-track system to do both. By throwing asylum seekers into the overwhelmed homeless arena, we fail both populations.   

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