Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, right, talks to the media on Wednesday, when she, City Manager Danielle West, center, and Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow went to the Portland Expo to meet with asylum seekers protesting conditions at the sports arena and the lack of a plan for where they will go when it closes Aug. 16. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland officials are asking the state to support a proposal to house asylum seekers on a college campus in Unity or call in the National Guard to set up a new emergency shelter.

In a letter to Gov. Janet Mills dated Thursday, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and City Manager Danielle West asked Mills to support the proposal from the Greater Portland Council of Governments to house as many as 600 asylum seekers at the rural Waldo County campus of Unity College, which recently changed its name to Unity Environmental University.

When the school underwent a rebranding during the pandemic and transitioned to more distance learning, many of its facilities in Unity were left largely unused.

“We believe the GPCOG Unity College proposal offers near-immediate transitional housing for asylum seekers already here in Maine, and we ask for your support,” the letter reads.

“If Unity College cannot be used, we ask you to call up the National Guard to stand up and operate an emergency shelter for asylum seekers,” it states.

The likelihood of the GPCOG proposal getting approval and funding is unclear. As is the potential use of the National Guard, and what deploying those service members could look like.


West was not available for an interview about the request Friday afternoon, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. Snyder did not respond to voicemail messages or an email seeking to talk about the letter.

The request follows a protest that asylum seekers staying at the Portland Expo held on Wednesday, calling on the city and state to come up with long-term solutions for where they will go after the city closes the shelter on Aug. 16. so it can honor commitments for events scheduled at the Expo this fall.

The letter was already being drafted before Wednesday’s protest, Grondin said, and comes as Portland has seen more than 1,540 asylum seekers arrive in the city since Jan. 1.

The influx has left local officials desperate for long-term housing and shelter solutions.

Asylum seekers talk with one another before heading back inside the Portland Expo to meet with city officials during the protest Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Officials from GPCOG, a regional planning organization, submitted their proposal to the state about two weeks ago.


“The Unity campus can provide transitional housing for 600 individuals for less than it costs to shelter 300 people at the Saco hotel or 125 at the South Portland one,” the proposal said. “The cost savings alone are reason to explore this further.”

The likelihood the proposal will come to fruition remains unclear as questions remain about how it would be funded and whether it would be supported by the residents of Unity, which is about 15 miles east of Waterville. The city’s letter to the governor notes some of the potential challenges.

“While this would be a complex undertaking that would require, among other things, local community buy-in, involvement and support, we welcome the opportunity to work with you, your staff, GPCOG and local, regional and community partners,” it says.

Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for Mills, said in an email Friday that the governor is reviewing the letter and the GPCOG proposal.

“We consider all ideas to address the urgent issue of homelessness, and we appreciate the effort by partners to propose options for housing and shelter,” Goodman said.

“However, any potential application for funding for the Unity proposal, if funding were to become available, would be considered by MaineHousing, rather than the governor’s office.”


Goodman said the governor’s office would not speculate on the potential use of the National Guard.

He did not respond to additional questions about how decisions about deploying the National Guard are made and whether the state has ever utilized it before to respond to asylum seekers or any kind of emergency shelter needs.

Toto Capitao, far right, and fellow asylum seekers watch city officials give a news conference in the entryway of the Portland Expo on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A spokesperson for MaineHousing, meanwhile, said that while the agency is willing to explore the Unity idea, there is no funding mechanism in place right now to pay for it and there are questions about whether area residents would be receptive.

“We’re taking the idea seriously, as we would any idea that would help with homelessness or the asylum seeker population, but it’s difficult,” MaineHousing spokesperson Scott Thistle said. “We need to have all the pieces and one of the most important pieces is the buy-in from the local community and giving them the opportunity to consider the idea.”


Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships for GPCOG, said in an email Friday that the organization hasn’t talked broadly with residents about their proposal, but that she did meet with the vice chair of the Unity Select Board to discuss it.


“We talked about the proposal and how important it would be to make sure all of the necessary resources were in place before moving people into transitional housing there,” Ray said.

Still, some local residents and officials are wary of the idea.

Unity is a town of around 2,300 residents and adding 600 people would increase the population by 26%.

“There needs to be a plan if we’re going to spread asylum seekers out to rural areas and what does that plan look like?” said Rep. Benjamin Hymes, R-Waldo, whose district includes Unity. “Is it 100 people on different campuses? And what are the services? It doesn’t seem like there’s been any long-term planning.”

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, president of Unity Environmental University, said in a statement Friday that there is still much more planning that would need to take place before asylum seekers could be housed on campus.

“The number of asylees that could be housed at our Quaker Hill Road facilities would depend on a range of factors,” Khoury said.

“There has not been a meeting between GPCOG, Unity Environmental University, the governor’s office, and the town of Unity to discuss the full scope, feasibility, timing and infrastructure support required to effectively accommodate and provide for the potential influx of asylees at our Quaker Hill Road facilities.

“We remain willing to help, but will not put the cart before the horse.”

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