Portland will be seeking assistance from the community and nonprofit organizations when it opens a temporary emergency shelter for asylum seekers at the Portland Expo Center next month.

Interim City Manager Danielle West told the City Council during a special meeting Monday that the city plans to use the Expo until July, when it expects a private shelter being developed by the Center for Regional Prosperity and Developers Collaborative to open at 90 Blueberry Road. Families and individuals staying at the Expo would be transferred to the new location.

An asylum seeker sleeps on a cot inside the Portland Exposition Building in Portland in June 2019, when the Expo was turned into a temporary shelter. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The city has seen nearly 900 new asylum seekers arrive since Jan. 1 and is currently using several locations to house people, including its Family Shelter, the Oxford Street Shelter and overflow space in a school gym. The Oxford Street Shelter is expected to be replaced this week by the new Homeless Services Center.

The school gym will be replaced on or around April 10 with the Portland Expo, which the city has estimated will have a capacity of about 300 people.

West’s update to the council was a communication, meaning no council action was necessary on the plans. Councilors didn’t ask questions or discuss the plans, though Mayor Kate Snyder offered brief remarks.

Snyder said she has heard questions from the community about the proposed Blueberry Road site, though she said the city’s involvement is limited.


“The city has a commitment to operating the Family Shelter and overflow space as well as currently, the Oxford Street Shelter and soon to be Homeless Services Center,” Snyder said. “We budget for and staff those facilities. The expansion into the school gym always has been temporary, but it’s been staff’s way of addressing this.

“I want to point that out and acknowledge the questions that have been asked but also thank community partners for stepping forward and working to help address the issues, because 900 people since Jan. 1 is a lot of new arrivals.”

Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, stressed that the city is continuing to see large numbers of people arrive. Just over the weekend, Dow said eight new asylum-seeking families came to the city.

About 71% of individuals staying at the Oxford Street Shelter are asylum seekers, or about 110 people, and Dow said the city will look to move some of those people to the Expo, where there will be a concentration of services that asylum seekers need.

“This is not something that will open and solve all our problems, but it will provide emergency shelter with wraparound services like we’ve been saying is really needed – some coordinated services while other longer-term solutions are being worked on,” Dow said.

The Expo was last opened as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers in 2019 after nearly 90 people arrived in just three days. It served as an emergency shelter again in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, though the city also came to rely heavily on hotel rooms as shelter space during COVID-19.


The city owns the Expo, and West said in an interview before Monday’s meeting that some events are being rescheduled to accommodate the shelter plans. She said the city doesn’t expect to see a big impact either in terms of additional costs or lost revenues.

“We have done a budget and it will be within the cost we’ve been expending to date for other options,” West said.

Monday’s meeting was held remotely via Zoom because the city manager and several members of the council are attending a conference hosted by the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.

West said that they will have the opportunity while there to talk to Maine’s Congressional delegation about issues facing the city, including homelessness and the influx of asylum seekers.

The city wants to see changes to federal law to reduce the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to get work permits, and continues to stay in touch with the delegation about the numbers the city is seeing and other ways they could help, West said.

“We want to do this together and the only way we can do that is if we keep talking about it and looking for solutions and ways to address this,” she said.



In other news Monday, the council held a workshop to discuss possible changes to the referendum process. Councilors generally expressed support for making changes, especially around the current requirement that the council cannot make changes to citizen-initiated ordinances for five years, except via another referendum.

“This is probably the most problematic aspect of the process right now, so eliminating that time period where the council cannot act on a referendum that’s been passed at the ballot is key,” Councilor Roberto Rodriguez said.

The council was more divided over whether it should raise the number of signatures needed to get a citizens’ initiative on the ballot.

That number is currently 1,500, though councilors Monday discussed bringing the number in line with what the state requires for state-level citizen-initiated referendums. That number is 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

About 33,993 people voted in Portland’s last gubernatorial election.


Councilor Regina Phillips believes 1,500 signatures is too low and that 3,300 is too high. “We don’t have to go with the state standard, we can come up with our own,” Phillips said. “I do agree … that this is about more than just increasing numbers, it’s about community engagement.”

Going into the workshop, councilors had been considering holding a first and second read on a proposed ordinance next month in order to get a referendum on the changes before voters in June.

However, that timeline appeared unlikely Monday night after several councilors said they felt it would be rushed and they would rather see a question go to voters in November.

Snyder said the council may meet again for another workshop on referendums, and that they could consider a workshop that includes public comment.

“It’s work we will schedule and we will do alongside other priorities, so I will work with staff to get something scheduled, but I would look to my colleagues on the council to please reach out if you have creative ideas for how to engage people,” she said.

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