Zatua Manuel, center, waits at Sanford City Hall on Monday as asylum seekers try to get General Assistance help and find a place to stay. Manuel came to Maine 10 years ago from Angola and was trying to help a family who recently arrived in Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Dozens of asylum seekers have arrived in Sanford in the past week looking for assistance, but city officials say they cannot provide any more emergency housing and are asking others not to come to the city.

Last week, 23 families showed up at City Hall. Another 30 people arrived over the weekend. The officials say it’s not clear why asylum seekers are turning to Sanford for help. The city does not have a shelter or other resources to deal with a large influx of homeless people. Its hotels are already full.

Some of the asylum seekers came from Portland, where an emergency shelter at the Expo Center set aside for asylum-seeking families has been full for nearly a month.

“There is no more capacity to house any more families in Sanford,” said Carter Friend, executive director of York County Community Action Corp., one of the organizations helping to find housing, food and other resources for the asylum seekers. “There is no more space in hotels in Sanford. That’s important for folks to know.”


The first few families arrived early last week and began signing up for General Assistance. On Friday, when City Hall is closed, two large groups arrived looking for assistance, Sanford Police Maj. Matthew Gagne said. He estimated those families included about 60 people.


On Monday, more than two dozen asylum seekers sat on the benches and chairs that line the hallway outside of the General Assistance Office at Sanford City Hall. Children quietly played with games and toys on the floor while adults filled out paperwork and waited for a chance to speak to someone from the office.

Asylum seekers wait outside of Sanford City Hall on Monday. The city has said that it can’t handle the number of people looking for General Assistance aid. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The two city employees appeared slightly frazzled as they walked back and forth between their offices and the hallway, where anxious people waiting for help tried to ask questions.

Among them was Simphur, a 43-year-old man who said he arrived in Sanford on Sunday.

Simphur, who did not want to give his last name because he fears for his life, said he came to Maine from Gabon and was traveling with his 40-year-old wife. He hoped to find some kind of assistance by the end of the day.

Nearby, a family of five from Angola had been waiting for hours to speak with someone from General Assistance. One woman was eight months pregnant.

Zatua Manuel – who came to Maine from Angola 10 years ago – spent Monday trying to help the family find a place to stay. He said they arrived in Maine four days ago and went to the Expo in Portland, only to find there was no space.


They came to Sanford because they heard help was available there, Manuel said.

“They are really sad because they thought when they came here that somebody could help,” he said.

Simphur, a man from Gabon who only wanted to give his first name, waits inside Sanford City Hall on Monday near the General Assistance office. Simphur and his wife came to Maine from Atlanta after flying from Gabon. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Over the past several years, Portland has seen the largest number of asylum-seeking families, but communities in York County also have handled assistance for some new arrivals, including Biddeford and Saco, Friend said. But this was the first time Sanford has seen large numbers of people show up at the General Assistance Office at the same time.

“We didn’t know this was going to happen in Sanford, but that’s the nature of crisis,” Friend said.


In Portland, the emergency shelter at the Expo has been full since shortly after it opened on April 10 and the city says it cannot guarantee families a place to sleep. The city is no longer using overflow space in the multipurpose room at the Family Shelter, where families once slept sitting upright in chairs, and other city shelters remain full.


When the Expo shelter opened, Portland already had seen more than 1,100 asylum seekers arrive since Jan. 1 and was housing about 1,140 people nightly between the Expo, two permanent shelters and hotels.

When people show up in Portland asking for General Assistance, they are now issued a list of landlords, which puts them on a self-directed housing search and provides them with information about possible resources in the greater Portland area, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. No one from the city staff has directed people to specific communities, including Sanford, and no communities have reached out to Portland, she said.

Asylum seekers wait inside Sanford City Hall on Monday in a hall near the General Assistance office. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sanford City Manager Steven Buck did not respond Monday to a call or email seeking more information about the city’s response to the asylum seekers’ arrival. His office was empty when a reporter visited Monday, and it appeared people were meeting in a closed conference room.

When reached on her cellphone, Mayor Becky Brink hung up when a reporter identified herself.

The Sanford City Council has scheduled an emergency meeting for 5 p.m. Tuesday to get an update from Buck on the coordination of the municipal response to the influx of asylum seekers as well as the city’s collaboration with local, regional and state organizations.

On Monday night, the city issued a statement to the community explaining its plan for addressing the asylum-seeking families in Sanford. While the city said its General Assistance Office is “working tirelessly” to aid everyone in need, including the asylum seeking families, the city said asylum seekers will be responsible for finding housing.


“We must inform you that our city has reached its capacity as there is no further lodging available,” the city said. “We have communicated this information to both the newly arrived families and our community partners statewide. As a result, anyone who arrives at the General Assistance Office seeking lodging will not be able to receive benefits until they themselves can identify suitable housing.”

The city said it is collaborating with community partners, including York County Community Action, Sanford Housing, the Sanford School District, Nasson Health Care, York County Shelter Program and local hotels to provide food, transportation and medical services to families.

“Outside of the public transportation system, you will likely see large groups of walkers in area where they are not typically seen,” the city said in its statement. “Please exercise caution with the increased pedestrian presence.”

Jordan Wilson, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email Monday night that the city was told by some asylum seekers that drivers for Uber, DoorDash and privately owned vehicles transported the families to Sanford. Some families solicited rides to Sanford from other asylum seekers, who have since found refuge in Maine.

When asked about the role of Uber and Door Dash, Wilson replied, “That is what some members of the group told us. Maybe there was a translation mixup or the person also drove for Door Dash or Uber Eats,” she said.

Sanford City Hall closed at 5:30 p.m. Monday and it was unclear where those still seeking help would spend the night.


Wilson explained that the city has reached capacity at hotels and other housing options and is no longer able to issue housing vouchers.

“For those who the city could not find housing, they are making arrangements to return to the housing option that they left prior to being transported to Sanford,” Wilson said.

When asked why so many families came to Sanford seeking help, Wilson replied, “We believe that information about the General Assistance benefits spread rapidly through word of mouth.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story

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