A regional effort to provide transitional housing and services to asylum seekers is gaining some traction, and those behind say it could also lead to a boost to Maine’s workforce.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments and partnering organizations are seeking $2 million for the Safe in Maine Fund with a goal of $500,000 by the end of September. The early funds will be put toward “catalyzing and supporting” a transitional housing project for asylum seekers, according to Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships at GPCOG.

“It started as, simply, the housing solution; trying to find a way to help house folks that are arriving here and needed some assistance,” Ray said. “The more we looked into things, the more we understood what a workforce development opportunity this is for Maine.”

GPCOG is soliciting funding for Safe in Maine from municipalities around Greater Portland. So far, the Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth town councils have approved $50,000 contributions, as has the Westbrook City Council. Yarmouth councilors agreed to contribute $20,000. Ray made a Safe in Maine presentation last month to the Falmouth Town Council, which is currently considering a donation.

“The challenge of helping those without homes and asylum seekers is a regional challenge that requires regional solutions,” Scarborough Town Council Chairperson Jon Anderson said in an email to The Forecaster. “Safe in Maine is one example of a project where we can partner together across communities to provide transitional housing to asylum seekers who have great potential to be huge contributors to our communities.”

Asylum seekers must wait, often months, to be legally recognized as refugees and allowed to pursue employment – and permanent housing requires a steady source of income. Safe in Maine could help alleviate the labor shortage spurred by the pandemic and exacerbated by Maine’s aging population, Ray said, by prepping asylum seekers for the workforce.


“The idea with Safe in Maine is to build transitional housing, which gives people a place to land when they arrive and a place where they can connect with services and get all of those things that they need to begin navigating the Maine community and economy and workforce,” Ray said. “Then they can move to permanent housing and permanent jobs.”

Between July 2019 and June 2022, the number of asylum seekers in the Greater Portland area rose from 240 to 1,378, Ray said.

More than 1,600 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland since Jan. 1. The Portland Expo, which housed 300 of them starting in April, ended its shelter operation Wednesday and transferred about 160 people from 60 families to hotels in Freeport and Lewiston.

In February 2022, South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli reported that roughly 700 asylum seekers were being sheltered at hotels there, with a typical stay of about five months. From there, the asylum seekers would stay in Portland shelters for about four months before finding more permanent housing. Only one South Portland hotel is now housing asylum seekers.

Temporary shelters at hotels are costly for the state, local organizations and municipalities. GPCOG estimates the average cost of rent and meals for one family with a contracted hotel in the region is $87,600 a year.

“It’s more expensive than if we had intentional transitional housing,” Ray said, especially when that housing can be provided in vacant, existing buildings. That model, they estimate, would cost $24,600 per family per year.


GPCOG has eyed Unity Environmental University’s campus in Unity, which is now up for sale, as one potential site because it has unused housing facilities.

“The Safe in Maine Fund was established to catalyze and support the creation of transitional housing,” she said. “The Unity proposal puts forward one possibility for creating a transitional housing campus. Like any other proposal, it has distinct benefits and challenges.”

The University of Southern Maine in Gorham also was explored as an option, but the vacant dormitories there were deemed uninhabitable.

“I really hope that people begin to see that, by finding a way to help the many new Mainers who are arriving and looking to settle here to do just that, we are also creating a really bright future for Maine,” Ray said. “I hope people start to put those two things together; we need workers. We have workers who want to be here.”

For more information about the Safe in Maine Fund and to donate, visit safeinmaine.org.

This story was edited Aug. 17 to update the status of asylum seekers who had been staying at a shelter at the Portland Expo.

Comments are not available on this story.