The South Portland City Council voted to green light an agreement with the state on Tuesday that will create a year of temporary, transitional housing for asylum seekers at the Howard Johnson hotel.

The 367 homeless people currently living in hotels across South Portland will be moved in July from five other hotels in the city to Howard Johnson, where MaineHousing and Catholic Charities will operate the shelter and offer services.

Christopher Valentim Fonseca Andre, 3, plays outside of Howard Johnson Hotel in South Portland, in 2022 where his family was staying. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The state will fund the agreement through June 30, 2024, paying for services from Catholic Charities and all housing costs, up to $65,000 for residents to receive General Assistance from the city, and $135,000 to hire a temporary health specialist or cover any unpaid ambulance costs. The agreement is estimated to cost $4.5 million to $5 million in all, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior adviser for housing policy said during the meeting.

“This is not just a shelter – it’s actually a transitional housing center that will be service oriented … to give people the services that they need to transition them into permanent housing,” Mayor Katherine Lewis said ahead of the vote. “Right now, I think this is one of the best possible things that we can do for our community and for South Portland families and children.”

It’s the second arrangement the state has negotiated with a municipality to provide temporary shelter for the influx of asylum seekers that have moved to Maine this year. The state extended a contract with a hotel in Saco through at least December to continue funding shelter housing for around 440 people.

The council approved the agreement in a 6-1 vote, with Councilor Richard Matthews dissenting. During discussion, some councilors and members of the public were concerned about the impact on taxpayers, especially with a legal clause that allows MaineHousing to terminate the agreement at any point.


“The only reason that MaineHousing could foresee terminating the agreement is because for some reason the hotel terminated its agreement with us,” said Adam Krea, the agency’s deputy director. “MaineHousing, we’re willing to pay for things, we’re willing to work with the city to offset as much of your cost as we possibly can within the state budget.”

The agreement comes as an ordinance the council passed in 2022 is set to take effect barring hotels from operating as emergency shelters. Howard Johnson was one of nine hotels in the city sheltering hundreds of homeless people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

But after multiple extensions, and with 202 adults and 165 children still sheltering in six hotels, the city set a final deadline of June 30, 2023. As a result, dozens of asylum-seeking families living at Howard Johnson were facing eviction until intervention through a court order.

Under the council’s vote, Howard Johnson will now be the only hotel in South Portland allowed to provide shelter or transitional housing to homeless individuals and families. Only individuals and families currently residing in the five other hotels across the city will be allowed to receive this shelter space and no new people will be given shelter if current residents transition to permanent housing throughout the next year.

“We’re really working with the folks that are here now, that are needing housing. What is the alternative? That we say no to this and that folks are now out on the street on Saturday?,” Councilor Jocelyn Leighton said. “I know that this is a nuanced problem – there’s many layers to it. But to me … this is a humanitarian vote, not a political vote. This is about human beings needing help.”

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