Dickey-Wood Dormitory at USM’s Gorham campus, which some housing advocates have suggested using as a temporary shelter, though the university says it could cost $40 million to renovate. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Those searching for ways to provide housing for homeless people and asylum seekers are looking into whether Maine has unused college dorms that could be turned into temporary shelters.

The question surfaced Thursday during a meeting of the Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee in Portland, a group of social services providers, government representatives and advocates seeking to ensure the safety and well-being of those without housing.

“If we can encourage big-picture moves to support asylum seekers more effectively using dorms or other locations, I think that would be a big win for the community,” said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a nonprofit that works to create and support affordable housing for people who are homeless, low-income or have special needs.

“It would allow the Homeless Services Center (in Portland) to really be used for its best purpose – to help people with the highest needs who are outside right now.”

The idea is a potential part of the solution to a desperate need for more housing and emergency shelter for both an influx of asylum seekers and circumstantially homeless, though it could come with its own challenges.

Dickey-Wood Dormitory at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, for example, has been vacant since 2015.


The building has the capacity to house about 380 people but is in need of asbestos abatement and significant rehabilitation that would cost at least $40 million, the university said. It’s currently slated for demolition.

“There’s nothing that can be done without a huge cost assessment,” said Gina Guadagnino, a university spokesperson.


Members of the committee acknowledged the challenges but said the idea is worth exploring. They voted unanimously to send a request to state officials asking them to explore using unoccupied college dorms for temporary housing.

Asked about the idea Thursday, Greg Payne, senior adviser on housing policy in the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, said he recently had a brief conversation with Portland’s social services director, Aaron Geyer, about using some old dormitories on the USM campus for housing.

“I asked the college, but found out that the buildings are no longer suitable to be used for residences of any kind,” Payne said in an email.


Payne said he also received a preliminary list of potential sites for short- or long-term housing on university property late last year, but most of the sites were just vacant land, so the state would have to build something, and the few existing buildings on the list would not have addressed the need.

“We do continue to be in contact with university officials on this subject, as part of wider efforts to explore every possible option for securing additional emergency and longer-term housing,” he said.

Portland is currently housing about 1,200 people per night between three city-run shelters, including the new Homeless Services Center, and hotels – but that number doesn’t include people who are sleeping on the street, staying in private shelters, or crashing with friends and family.

About 70% of the people staying at the city’s Homeless Services Center are asylum seekers, as is nearly every family at the Portland Expo and the city’s family shelter.

The lack of shelter space drew more attention and concern this week after the city cleared a homeless encampment of more than 80 tents on the Bayside Trail.

Geyer didn’t name Dickey-Wood at Thursday’s meeting, but said he had asked the state about a space at the USM campus slated for demolition, as well as a dorm and dining hall at the University of Maine in Orono that he said were closed due to low enrollment.


“I reached out to see if there was any interest in that – in using the dorms as a way to build additional capacity while they’re underutilized,” Geyer said.

He said he floated the idea after hearing about Every Campus a Refuge, an organization that has a goal of partnering every college and university in the United States with a refugee resettlement agency to host refugees on campus grounds and support their integration.

“I had sent that along and just inquired, because with the uptick in community college enrollment, what we’re seeing is a decline in numbers at the four-year universities,” Geyer said.

“It just piqued my curiosity. … If you have low enrollment in the fall, you’re likely to have low enrollment throughout the school year and certainly in the summer. It seemed like an opportunity for at least eight or nine months for options for housing.”


Tory Ryden, a spokesperson for the University of Maine System, said Hancock Hall on the Orono campus, which closed last fall due to low enrollment, will be back online this year as student housing and that the closed dining facility, Wells Central, is scheduled to be renovated and also reopen.


Ryden said she was working to get information on whether there are other vacant spaces across the university system that could be looked at for housing.

Guadagnino, the USM spokesperson, said the university currently leases homes on Chamberlain Street in Portland to Avesta Housing, but there are no other spaces on campus that are unused and could be considered for temporary housing.

“Probably once per quarter someone reaches out to us about Dickey-Wood, but then they hear about the financial obligations to make it habitable and we don’t hear from them again,” she said.

The idea of using college dorms for housing asylum seekers or the homeless is not new, even in Maine. In 2019, USM offered Portland dorm space to house asylum seekers, but city officials turned down the offer, citing the fact the dorm was only available short-term.

The university also opened Sullivan Gymnasium as a temporary shelter for homeless adults during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.



Part of the pressure on the current emergency housing system in Maine is due to an influx of asylum seekers – more than 1,300 have arrived in Portland since Jan. 1 – and officials have repeatedly stressed that more transitional housing offering the services needed by that population would help.

At least one private university in Maine is exploring the possibility of hosting asylum seekers on campus. Unity Environmental University, which has locations and facilities around the state, including in Unity and New Gloucester, has undergone a rebranding and transitioned to more distance learning in recent years.

Because many students are now remote, the school has extra dorm space, including several suite-style apartments, on its residential campus in Unity, President Melik Peter Khoury said in a statement Thursday.

“Our strong financial position, combined with this extra space, means we have the ability to house asylum seekers in their own space with the ability to take advantage of many of our college services,” Khoury said.

He said the university also would hope to offer educational programs specifically tailored to asylum seekers and is well-equipped to provide transportation from Unity to its technical institute in New Gloucester.

“At this point, Unity is in a wait-and-see position,” Khoury said. “Of course, the success of such a plan hinges on the appropriation of funding, and coordination among the university, government agencies and relevant support organizations. This would not be a flip of a switch, but with the right planning, we believe Unity could be part of the solution.”

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