Maria Carlota Fonseca talks on her phone in the lobby of Howard Johnson Hotel in 2022 in South Portland while her three-year-old son plays on a luggage carrier. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The state is planning to pay for a second hotel in southern Maine to temporarily house asylum seekers who can’t find long-term shelter.

The South Portland City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on an agreement that would allow MaineHousing and Catholic Charities to operate a temporary shelter for asylum seekers at the Howard Johnson hotel for the next year.

Under the agreement negotiated with the city, the state will cover the cost to house the families and individuals at the hotel through June 30, 2024. It also will pay Catholic Charities to provide support services. Though it’s not yet clear how much it will cost, a spokesperson for MaineHousing said funding for the temporary shelter will come from a $12 million pool set up to support short-term emergency housing and settlement support.

The arrangement is nearly identical to one the state has with Portland to use a hotel in Saco as transitional housing for asylum seekers, Scott Morelli, South Portland’s city manager, wrote in agenda documents ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. The state recently agreed to extend its contract in Saco at least through December. Since last summer, the Saco hotel has housed 440 people, including 205 adults and 235 children, at a cost to the state of $5.1 million.

The Howard Johnson is one of nine hotels in South Portland that were used to shelter hundreds of homeless people, including asylum seekers, during the COVID-19 pandemic. But after the city saw a spike in calls for emergency services and received complaints about guests’ behavior, the City Council set a June 30 deadline for the last seven hotels to stop operating as shelters.

Morelli said many people have been able to find other housing, but as of June 21, six hotels were still renting out 128 rooms to 367 people, including 165 children.


Most of those people were housed there by other agencies. South Portland had placed only 38 people in 20 rooms. The others were placed there by the city of Portland, Prosperity Maine, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Preble Street and Opportunity Alliance.

Because so many people faced the possibility of having to live on the street after June 30, the state stepped in, Morelli said. Those living in other hotels in the city will be moved to the Howard Johnson, but no new families or individuals will be given a room.

“The City Council was clear that this arrangement was to be revenue neutral and this agreement is our best attempt to achieve that while also recognizing the state has finite dollars allocated for this program,” Morelli said.

The city estimates, however, that it will lose at least $105,000 between General Assistance costs (the state will reimburse 100% of the costs, up to $65,000) and the cost of ambulance services (the state will cover up to $135,000).

If approved by the City Council, the agreement will begin July 1 and run through June 30, 2024. It is likely to take all of July to move the guests from the five other hotels to the Howard Johnson, Morelli said.

Earlier this month, dozens of asylum-seeking families who were facing eviction from the Howard Johnson reached an agreement in court with New Gen Group, which owns the hotel, to stay through the end of July. New Gen Group had issued eviction orders as the company tried to comply with the city ordinance that requires hotels to stop operating as emergency shelters by June 30 or face daily fines of $100 to $500 per violation.


Attempts to reach Suresh Gali of New Gen Group were unsuccessful Monday and an attorney who represented him in the eviction cases did not respond to a request to speak with Gali about the arrangement with MaineHousing.

A spokesperson for Catholic Charities declined to talk about the arrangement Monday because the City Council had not yet voted on the plan.

MaineHousing Director Daniel Brennan said it’s premature for him to say much about the proposal before Tuesday’s meeting.

“We want to be respectful of the process and trust in local elected officials to make the decisions that are in the best interests of their communities. MaineHousing is very grateful for South Portland’s ongoing engagement on this important housing issue and is equally grateful for all the support we’ve seen from the Legislature, Gov. Mills, local residents, city officials and the property manager of this hotel,” he said in a statement. “This proposal, should it be approved, is modeled after a similar program in Saco that is seeing success in helping folks transition to stable housing, work and self-sufficiency as they rebuild their lives here.”

MaineHousing said it will finalize contracts with the hotel and Catholic Charities if the plan is approved by South Portland and after the state budget is finished.

The City Council will need to have further discussions about not bringing fines or enforcement action against the hotel for any guests transferred to Howard Johnson, Morelli said. The city also will have to amend its shelter and hotel ordinances and the Howard Johnson’s hotel license so the shelter can open.

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