Families began moving into the Portland Expo on Monday afternoon after the city once again opened it as a temporary overnight shelter for the many asylum seekers arriving in need of housing.

Nearly 300 people were expected to move into the city-owned sports arena, and cots were set up on the gymnasium floor where the Maine Celtics play.

More than 1,030 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland since Jan. 1. The city has struggled to provide shelter on a nightly basis to more than 1,140 people.

“Things are going well,” said Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services, just after 1 p.m. Monday. “Food is arriving. We’re just doing last-minute prep work to move people over this afternoon.”

The Expo first 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 2020 in the early days of the pandemic, though the city soon came to rely heavily on hotel rooms as shelter space while COVID-19 restrictions were in place.

The Expo is being used again right after the city opened its new Homeless Services Center, which reached capacity immediately, and closed its old Oxford Street Shelter.


The sports arena will be open 24/7 to asylum seeking families registered to stay there and will offer them wraparound services such as health screenings and immunizations, legal aid, translators, meals and housing assistance.

The city has estimated the fixed costs of opening the Expo as a shelter at $100,000, with additional expenses for weekly staffing and utilities. City officials began asking the public for donations to help last week, and by Monday had raised $28,700. The city also set up an Amazon wish list for people to donate needed items like diapers, toiletries, paper plates and utensils.

People are also being encouraged to sign up to volunteer to help with such tasks as serving meals, organizing donations and translating.

Kristin Dow, the director of health and human services for Portland, center, chats with her daughter, Hannah Dow, right, and fellow DHHS employees as they unbox the plastic totes that asylum seekers will be given to keep their belongings in at the Portland Expo on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Many migrants arriving in Portland and seeking shelter in recent years have fled violence or political persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo and Angola, and traveled to Central or South America before making their way north and asking for asylum at the southern U.S. border.

Asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the United States and move freely around the country while pursuing their applications, but they are not eligible for work authorization for at least six months so they often have to rely at the start on public assistance.

Asylum seekers who have been staying in overflow space at the city’s Family Shelter or in a temporary shelter set up at a middle school gym were transferred Monday afternoon to the new shelter at the Expo. They arrived in private cars, on foot and in city vans, and carried totes, trash bags and backpacks filled with belongings.


Landriche B. Kalamba is from Congo and has been in Portland nearly two months. Her family left home, she said, for political reasons, including a push in 2015 to try to ban protests in public places. She said she was raped and the victim of burglary in Brazil on her journey to the U.S.

Kalamba, 33, said she has been staying with her three children at the middle school gym. The Expo isn’t much better, but “we don’t have a choice,” she said, speaking in Portuguese with the help of an interpreter.

Kalamba said she heard about Maine at the U.S. border, where people told her it was a good place for immigrants to go – but since she got here, she has had a hard time understanding why.

Landriche Kalamba, 33, holds her daughters’ hands while speaking to a reporter outside of the Portland Expo on Monday. Kalamba was one of about 270 asylum seekers, all of them families, moved into the Expo on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The conditions are like hell,” she said.

Andre Muka, who is from Angola, was in a small crowd waiting in line to get into the Expo on Monday afternoon. Muka, 45, said he has been staying at the home of a local pastor but is now planning to move to the Expo with his wife and two children.

He said through an interpreter that they have been in Maine for six months and “it’s difficult.”


The Expo is the latest in a growing number of shelters set up around the city, including a 77-bed shelter for asylum seekers at the Salvation Army that is run by the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and funded by the state. That shelter is expected to stay open until a private effort to develop a new 280-bed shelter at 90 Blueberry Road comes online around July.

The state also is funding efforts by Greater Portland Family Promise and State Street Church to house smaller numbers of families.

The city will be partnering with community groups including Preble Street, the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to provide services at the Expo.

Portland moved about 270 people, all of them families, into the Expo on Monday which has a max capacity of 300. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lisa Parisio, a senior policy and outreach attorney at ILAP, said the organization will have a regular and ongoing presence at the Expo, providing services related to people’s immigration cases.

Maine doesn’t have enough immigration attorneys to meet the current need, but ILAP’s new Asylum Assistance and Legal Orientation Project is offering legal information and limited legal assistance to asylum seekers to help them understand and figure out the immediate and long-term steps they will need to take, Parisio said.

“As programming gets underway at the Expo, ILAP stands ready, in collaboration with our community partners, to provide these critical services to Expo guests,” she wrote in an email.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said her group will help with cultural brokering while continuing to run the Salvation Army shelter.

Chitam said community groups are spread thin and that, while the Expo is just opening, it’s critical that city and nonprofit leaders start to look at plans to shut it down this summer. That means figuring out long-term housing solutions.

“We want leads on landlords who have open homes – whether it’s in Portland or outside of Portland,” Chitam said. “Send word our way … what we want is a house that can be rendered, a room that can be rendered. … As the Expo opens, it’s also our responsibility to think about how it’s decommissioned. It’s going to come quickly.”

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