Tawni Whitney and Prince Pombo Mafumba, an asylum seeker from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, at Whitney’s home in Freeport where she and her family hosted Prince and his wife and daughter for several months in 2019. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Prince Pombo Mafumba didn’t know anyone in Maine when he arrived as an asylum seeker in the summer of 2019.

He was staying with his wife and daughter at an emergency shelter set up at the Portland Expo, wondering where they might go next, when volunteers offered to put them up in South Portland.

They stayed for about three months before moving in with another family in Freeport, where Mafumba had been offered a job as a substitute French teacher at Freeport High School.

“It was a good experience to have a family you’ve never met accept you and receive you in their place,” said Mafumba, 40. “For me, it was good and it helped me learn how people live here and manage their daily lives.”

Mafumba’s family, who now have their own apartment in Freeport, are among dozens of asylum seekers who benefited from a host home program set up by the city of Portland, the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and others in 2019.

A similar group is looking to revive the program after its use dropped off during the COVID-19 pandemic.


They’re hoping it will offer a solution to the 260 people living at the Expo, which reopened as an emergency shelter in April but will close on Aug. 16.

“We think about these things a lot and are there ways we can open up more housing options to meet the need we have in the city,” said Portland City Manager Danielle West. “A lot of people have brought up the fact the host home program was so successful in 2019 and asked if there was a way we could resurrect it again … We ultimately realized that, yes, there might be a way to do that.”


The city is working with the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning organization, and the Quality Housing Coalition, a housing nonprofit, to revive the program. But it will look a little different than it did four years ago.

Victoria Morales, executive director of the coalition, said they’re calling it a “home share” rather than a “host home” program because hosts will be able to collect rent or exchange space for help around the house, whereas the previous program was entirely voluntary.

It’s an expansion of the Quality Housing Coalition’s existing Project HOME initiative, which works with landlords to place tenants who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity – many of them asylum seekers – into permanent housing.


“We’re looking for anyone who has a little extra house,” Morales said. “It could be a room they have or two rooms that are not being utilized. Maybe they have a short term rental or a whole home they’re not using, or an accessory dwelling unit.”

Hosts are being asked to commit to one year, a longer obligation than the three-month minimum in 2019.

“The housing crisis is such that we can’t kick off a program that’s only three months long,” Morales said. “We need people to commit to a year.”

The coalition is working with the city to use General Assistance money to cover the cost of rent. Rates are expected to range from $750 to $950 per month depending on a variety of factors, including utilities, the number of people per room and the size of the home.

People who live or have properties outside of Portland are also encouraged to get involved. Morales said the coalition isn’t formally working with any General Assistance offices in other towns to be able to offer payment, but they hope to be able to set that up in the future.

If people want to forego payment and participate voluntarily, that’s OK too. And some asylum seekers who have work permits may be able to pay rent without General Assistance.


Morales stressed that the coalition and its partners are flexible – whether that means working with someone in a town a little further away or a host who may have an apartment available, for example, for nine months rather than a year.

“We’re really hoping everyone everywhere reaches out to ask questions,” she said.


The city saw about 450 asylum seekers arrive in the summer of 2019 and officials found themselves in desperate need of help.

“Everyone was worried,” Mafumba said, recalling what it was like at the Expo. “When you go to a new place, you don’t know what it’s going to be like. We were wondering, what is our next move going to be? You don’t know nothing or nobody.”

Natalie West and her husband, Rob Sellin, who live in South Portland, provided Mafumba’s family with a spare room and bathroom in their house.


West, who serves as a city councilor in South Portland, said she had a positive experience. They were nice people and Mafumba helped with yard work, she said. But she and her husband were uniquely prepared. Sellin speaks Portugese and the couple had also traveled around Africa and lived in South Africa.

“Both of us lived in other cultures and have extensive experience in other cultures,” West said. “That plus the language capability gave us a unique framework. Prince is also a well-educated person who speaks English well and did when he arrived. I think it would be much more difficult for many families and they should go into it with open eyes.”

A host home or home share arrangement can come with some culture shock and a need for adjustment, said Tom Bell, a spokesperson for the council of governments.

“One hard issue (in 2019) was matching families with asylum seekers, making sure it was a good fit and navigating some cultural obstacles,” he said. “We’re talking about people just arriving in America and living in people’s homes, so there was a lot of education for both the hosts and the asylum seekers.”

Asylum seekers, most of whom come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, may be unaccustomed to some of the foods cooked in an American home and cultural norms like keeping dogs inside as pets, for example, Bell said.

They have experienced emotional trauma in their home countries and on the long treacherous journey to the United States. And many don’t speak English.


Morales said her organization will support asylum seekers through the transition. They will meet with landlords or hosts and tenants prior to placements, conduct health and safety checks and work with the tenants on how to communicate.

Ideally, Morales said, Project HOME would be looking for home shares with good access to public transportation, and she said the asylum seekers should be able to access General Assistance funding, local food pantries and other programs to provide them with adequate food.

And the Quality Housing Coalition will be able to assist with translation and interpretation. “Our staff won’t be there when they wake up each morning, but they are around for the more serious things and will be there to navigate and help them understand the expectations, duties and responsibilities of living together,” she said.


Portland has seen more than 1,500 asylum seekers arrive in the city since Jan. 1. As of June 13, there were 259 people from 79 families staying at the Expo. City officials are hopeful the home share program can help get them into new housing or shelter space by Aug. 16.

“This is a community need and something that was necessary and critical in 2019 to helping when we were closing the Expo,” said Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services. “It’s something we are hopeful that with this new model will be even more successful.”


After three months with his first host family, Mafumba and his family moved to Freeport.

They moved in with Tawni Whitney, who runs an organization called Freeport Friends that helps meet urgent needs in the community. She heard about the family from the school and offered to help. They ended up staying for about four months.

Mafumba’s wife, Thaiz, who is from Brazil, didn’t speak English at the time, but Whitney said it wasn’t too hard to communicate. She recalled how the two women bonded as they cooked dinner for their families each night in her kitchen.

Tawni Whitney and Prince Pombo Mafumba, an asylum seeker from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, at Whitney’s home where she hosted Prince and his wife and daughter for several months in 2019. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There was just this unspoken language between us,” she said. “If we wanted to talk more seriously, we would use Google Translate, but we really connected nonverbally.”

“It was magnificent. I absolutely loved it and it was just a gift to have them here with us,” Whitney said.

Mafumba said the experience not only gave him and his family a place to stay, but helped them adapt to life in America. They weren’t used to the weather, the remoteness of Maine and to being some of the only Black people around.

“When you go to a new place, if you have an opportunity to stay with someone who’s a local, it’s helpful,” Mafumba said. “You can learn how to live and manage a house, so when you go to your own place … you already learned from someone. It’s like school. You’re not going to stay there forever, but you learn in someone’s house what life is like in America.”

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