Herve Kalemat, 32, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, expresses concerns about leaving the Expo where his family, including his wife and two daughters, have been staying. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Time is running out to find housing for about 200 asylum seekers before the shelter at the Portland Expo closes next Wednesday.

The city opened the shelter in April and has said for weeks that it plans to close it on Aug. 16 in order to resume scheduled events at the city-owned sports arena.

As the deadline approaches, some families have been moved to the city’s family shelter, a city spokesperson said, and the city is working to find housing for those who remain. But it is unclear if enough options will be in place by next week.

“We don’t know. That’s all the information we have,” Herve Kalemat, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said as he pushed his 6-month-old daughter in a stroller outside the Expo on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re waiting.”

Kalemat, who is staying at the Expo with his wife and two daughters, said he has heard that others are going to hotels and some are going to stay in the homes of American families. “I don’t know about my family,” he said.

The temporary shelter was one of several public and private efforts to absorb an influx of asylum seekers, who often rely on assistance because federal rules prohibit them from obtaining work permits for at least six months after filing for asylum.


More than 1,600 asylum seekers arrived in Portland between Jan. 1 and the end of July.

Portland is housing about 850 people total, including homeless people and 300 asylum seekers at a Saco hotel that is funded by the state. The city’s Homeless Services Center is about 60% asylum seekers and its family shelter has routinely been filled or nearly filled by asylum seekers.

Most asylum seekers are from Central African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. About 300 were being housed at the Expo at peak capacity this spring, though that number has dropped to 204, the city said.

“We’re still working hard to connect the rest with housing options,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Wednesday. She said more details on the plans for closing the Expo and what will happen to the families that remain there are expected to come Friday.


“I’m hopeful the city will come up with something and that nobody will be on the street,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which has been assisting the city with operations at the Expo and also is running a 77-bed state-funded shelter for asylum seekers at the Salvation Army.


The funding for that shelter has been extended until April, Chitam said, though she said that they plan to stop taking in new guests on Dec. 1. Several families have moved into permanent housing since that shelter opened in March, but Chitam said it remains at capacity.

“It’s just the sheer number we’re working with,” she said. “It makes it look like nothing is happening. There is some progress, it’s just that the numbers have been way too high from the onset.”

Outside the Expo on Wednesday afternoon, several families said they didn’t know where they would go when that city shelter closes. Some said they had heard of families who were moving to hotels or motels, though Grondin, the city spokesperson, said that is not something the city is doing.

People congregate outside the Expo on Wednesday, a week before the temporary shelter for asylum seekers is set to close. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Michel and Dada Lemba, who are from Angola, said they did not know where they would go but were told no one would be on the street. “We’re not too worried,” they said.

At the end of June, dozens of asylum seekers protested the living conditions at the Expo, though the Lembas said Wednesday things are good. “It’s OK because there is a bed, food and water,” they said in Portuguese, using a phone translation app to answer a reporter’s questions.



The city, the Quality Housing Coalition and the Greater Portland Council of Governments last month launched a home share program to try to match landlords and homeowners willing to provide housing in spare rooms, entire homes, apartments or short-term rentals, with tenants in need, including asylum seekers.

At the time, officials said that they were hopeful the program could help find housing for families staying at the Expo.

Lucas Schrage, manager of the Project HOME program at the Quality Housing Coalition, said in an email that staff were not available for an interview Wednesday about the home share program and its work so far.

“At this time, Project HOME is working around the clock to ensure that we can place as many families as possible in advance of the impending Expo closure next week,” Schrage said.

He did not respond to an additional question about how many families from the Expo have been successfully placed into home shares.

Portland has agreed to help staff a new private shelter being developed by Developers Collaborative at 166 Riverside Industrial Parkway. Renovations to convert the site, a former warehouse, into a 180-bed shelter for individual asylum seekers, not families, are expected to be completed in November.


Developers Collaborative also is working to open 60 units for asylum seekers in Brunswick this fall. The first 24 units are expected to be ready for occupancy by Sept. 1.

Kevin Bunker, founder and principal at Developers Collaborative, said his company received 250 applications for the 60 units in less than two hours. He said the asylum seekers who will fill the apartments are coming from a variety of locations, including the Homeless Services Center and hotels.


Portland officials asked Gov. Janet Mills at the end of June to support a proposal from the Greater Portland Council of Governments for housing asylum seekers on the campus of Unity Environmental University, or call in the National Guard to set up a new emergency shelter.

GPCOG has been in discussions with the state and university for months about the idea to house as many as 600 asylum seekers in vacant dorms at the Unity campus in rural Waldo County. State officials said in June that the idea was being considered but no funding was immediately available.

“There have been no developments, but we remain hopeful,” GPCOG spokesperson Tom Bell said Wednesday.


Other cities and states have declared states of emergency to respond to increases in migrant families, including Massachusetts, where Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency on Tuesday.

Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for Mills, said in an email Wednesday that the governor is not considering declaring a state of emergency at this time.

“Instead, her administration will continue to work with the city of Portland, surrounding municipalities, MaineHousing, local nonprofit and development organizations, and others to support the transition of immigrants into Maine communities and the workforce, and to evaluate further housing options for all people in Maine who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity,” Goodman said.

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

Mills signed an executive order last week that calls for establishing an Office of New Americans to help new immigrants integrate into the state.

She also signed into law this year a bill directing the Maine Department of Labor to request a federal waiver to allow asylum seekers to work during the six months after they file their applications, and she supports efforts by members of Maine’s congressional delegation to speed up the asylum seeker work authorization process.

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