Asylum seekers are served a meal at a new temporary shelter at the Salvation Army in Portland on Tuesday. The shelter, which can accommodate 77 people, was full the first night that it opened. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A new temporary shelter for asylum seekers in downtown Portland is already at capacity after opening Monday, providing the latest sign of the growing crisis the city faces as it tries to meet the demand for shelter.

The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is operating the new shelter at the Salvation Army on Cumberland Avenue using state funding awarded last month for temporary emergency shelters around the state. The shelter has a capacity of 77 people – and was full on its first night.

“We’re just trying to respond to the need,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the coalition. “We’ve only been up and running for one night. We still have a number of needs, but the good news is we’re able to offer 77 people shelter.”

The new shelter is being used for asylum-seeking families who have overflowed the city of Portland’s Family Shelter and opens at a critical time. Since Jan. 1, the city has seen 665 new asylum seekers arrive in need of shelter, a city spokesperson said Tuesday.

That’s up from 550 as of the end of February, when the interim city manager issued a warning that “a cliff may be coming where we can’t meet the need.”

In addition to its Family Shelter, the Oxford Street Shelter and area hotels, the city temporarily opened a shelter inside a school gym in mid-February to provide additional overnight shelter.


The Family Shelter has a capacity of 146 people, not including its multipurpose room that has been used for overflow, while Oxford Street has a capacity of 154 and the school gym has a capacity of 133.

Even with the new shelter, Chitam said more space is needed.

“There are still other families left at the school,” she said. “There are still other people who need space.”

The city had intended to close down the shelter at the school gym when the Salvation Army site opened, but city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Tuesday that the city plans to keep it open for now, asking for two-week extensions from Portland Public Schools.


The state awarded just over $1 million last month for 13 overnight warming shelters across the state, including three in Portland. The shelter opened by the coalition is by far the largest, while the other two shelter plans from another nonprofit, Greater Portland Family Promise, and area churches were designed to help smaller numbers of families.


The state asked for the shelters to be set up “as early as feasible,” and has said the funding will run through April 30.

But getting set up, even with the infusion of funding, has been difficult.

“It’s very challenging, particularly to get staffing for throughout the night and the day,” Chitam said. “We’re talking about 24/7 staffing. … You can’t just put people there. You need people who speak the language, that know the systems.”

Children play in a small gymnasium at the new temporary shelter at the Salvation Army in Portland on Tuesday. The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is operating the new shelter using state funding awarded last month for temporary emergency shelters around the state. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The new shelter will host the same families for as long as they need help, as opposed to operating on a first-come, first-served basis each night. The nonprofit Amistad and other partners, including members of the Congolese, Angolan and Rwandan communities and the nonprofit Action for Life, are helping provide three meals per day.

And the YMCA on Forest Avenue is providing space for the families to go to during the day.

At the new Salvation Army shelter, Chitam said the families are grateful, but they still have unmet needs, for things like diapers and baby formula. And splitting their time between the Salvation Army and YMCA is also a challenge.


“Basically, it’s like living out of a suitcase between two places and eating in between two places,” Chitam said. “So it’s very challenging and at this point, we’re just trying to respond like any other community trying to respond. … We’re trying to figure it out and make it work every day.”


The opening of the new shelter comes a week after Portland officials said they have been overwhelmed by the influx of new arrivals and called on the state to provide more assistance.

Chitam agreed.

“We’re not in the shelter business, so it’s creating a new program involving six or seven organizations,” she said. “That’s why we’ve been talking about the need for a state-level resettlement program, so these systems can be created and mirrored in different municipalities, and the municipalities can be funded to run these shelters.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills did not directly respond to a question Tuesday about whether the state has discussed or would consider establishing a state resettlement office but said there are several things the state is doing to respond to the ongoing influx of asylum seekers.


MaineHousing is currently reviewing applications for additional long-term shelters in Maine to be funded by the Governor’s Emergency Winter Relief Plan, Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said in an email Tuesday. Goodman said a decision on those applications should come within the next few weeks.

In addition to the funding for the three emergency shelters in Portland announced last month, Goodman said the state also is supporting 85 asylum-seeking families in transitional housing in Saco and is helping 127 families access permanent housing in the greater Portland region. The state also is providing financial assistance to help asylum seekers navigate the work authorization process, he said.

“The governor’s office remains in contact with the city manager and mayor to discuss the recent arrival of asylum seekers and has pledged to continue work closely with them – as we have in the past – to support the potential creation of even more short-term shelter space,” Goodman said.

“The city has also identified a need for additional transitional housing, and the state will work closely with them and the Legislature on that endeavor as well.” 

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