Greg Post, who works at the Westbrook Community Center, carries a mattress for one of the bunk beds he and his team put together at the new shelter for asylum seekers in Portland on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

About 40 volunteers from towns across southern Maine spent most of Monday assembling bunk beds, cleaning bathrooms and washing windows to prepare a new shelter for asylum seekers that Portland officials hope will open up space at its homeless shelters for people who are living at encampments around the city.

The 20,000-square-foot shelter in a former beverage distribution warehouse at 166 Riverside Industrial Parkway will provide housing for up to 179 individual asylum seekers. The official opening at noon Wednesday will represent a significant step for the city and homeless advocates as they work to get people living in tents off the streets and into a warm shelter before extreme cold and snowy conditions take hold. Two men, who were living in tents, died over the weekend in separate tent fires in Portland and in Sanford.

Aaron Geyer, director of Portland’s Social Services Division, said moving the individual asylum seekers into the building on Industrial Parkway it will free up about 120 beds for the chronically homeless at the city’s new Homeless Services Center on Riverside Street. The two shelters are roughly one mile apart from each other.

In March, the city opened the new Homeless Services Center. The center at 654 Riverside St. has the capacity to house 208 people and offers on-site wraparound services including meals, healthcare and programs to help clients reenter the workforce and find transitional housing. It replaces the Oxford Street Shelter, a converted apartment building and auto garage that housed 154 people.

The City Council voted in June to approve a contract with Developers Collaborative, the private developer that will own and manage the shelter at 166 Riverside Industrial Parkway. The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition will assist with providing services. The contract states that after 18 months the coalition also may take over providing services from the city.

In anticipation of the shelter opening Wednesday, the Greater Portland Council of Governments Center for Regional Prosperity put out a call for volunteers interested in helping with preparations. Tom Bell, spokesman for the council, said 40 volunteers from communities such as Westbrook, South Portland, Standish, Scarborough and Yarmouth answered the call and spent part of their day doing manual labor.


Bell said he spotted Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley cleaning a bathroom. Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall, Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper, Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant, Standish Town Manager Tashia Pinkham, Scarborough Police Chief Mark Holmquist and South Portland Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach all pitched in.

“It’s for a great cause and it’s in our backyard,” Greg Post, director of Westbrook Community Services, said while assembling a bunk bed with help from Lori McDonald and Caroline O’Brien, who also work for Westbrook Community Services.

“It feels good to be able to give back to the community,” McDonald said.

Julie Rosenbach, who works for the South Portland sustainability department, puts together bunk beds Monday. Nearly 40 elected officials and employees from surrounding towns in the Greater Portland area answered the call for help setting up the new shelter. Rosenbach said she and members of her team came out to help with team building and to do a little good. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I am super glad we could help out. Homelessness is an issue that we all need to be helping with,” South Portland’s Rosenbach said.

“These people realize that (homelessness) is a regional problem, not just a Portland problem,” Bell said.

The building on Riverside Industrial Parkway will be staffed by about 50 city employees, Geyer said. It will be divided into two dorms – one side of the building will house men and the other side women. Geyer expects that about two-thirds of the residents will be males. No asylum seeking families will be allowed to stay at the shelter.

The shelter will remain open 24/7 and there is no limit on how long an occupant can stay, though the goal is to ultimately help shelter residents find a path to housing of their own.

Geyer said the shelter will feature a cafeteria, a laundry room with four washers and dryers, a day space for watching TV and social gatherings. Meals will be brought to the shelter by the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story