City searches for shelter options as asylum seekers continue to arrive in Portland

·4 min read

Oct. 12—Portland is running out of options to temporarily house a growing number of asylum seekers, most from central Africa, as they await permanent legal status and housing in an already saturated market.

In a report to be formally presented to city councilors Tuesday, Social Services Director Aaron Geyer wrote that 478 individuals are either being housed at the city's family shelter or in one of three local hotels. About half of those people arrived in June, July or August. The cost of their temporary housing has come out of the city's General Assistance fund, which mostly is paid for by the state.

"With capacity at both the shelter and area hotels being reached, we continue to connect with hotel owners in an attempt to locate additional rooms to shelter families," Geyer wrote. "We have reached out to hotels in Westbrook, Portland, Scarborough, Auburn, as well as the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce to gauge membership interest with regard to potential winter rentals.

"Capacity remains our greatest challenge; as we've seen contracted hotels in other municipalities across the state close, we've seen a corresponding uptick in the number of individuals and families requesting shelter in the form of hotel rooms in Portland."

Councilor Mark Dion, at a meeting last month, requested an update on asylum seekers, and Geyer's report will be presented to a council committee for discussion Tuesday night.

The number of asylum seekers now exceeds the influx of migrants that the city experienced two years ago — which led to the opening of the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter — and the city has been told more are likely to arrive, Geyer wrote. Most are coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other central African countries, but they are entering the U.S. through the Mexican border in Texas after traveling north from South and Central America.

The large influx of asylum seekers in 2019 presented a public crisis for the city, but the recent arrivals have happened without much attention. Some of that is likely dictated by the pandemic, which led the city to rely on hotel rooms for emergency shelter rather than congregate settings.

"We've always received families seeking asylum, it didn't just stop after 2019," Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said Tuesday afternoon. "But it would be a family here and a family there. What's happened over the last few months is: We're exceeding what we saw in 2019 but we're not able to communicate with the Customs and Border Patrol officials in Texas to let them know that we can't take anymore."

Although the current influx has happened largely under the radar, it's likely to reignite the debate over whether the city has the obligation to bear the responsibility alone.

Asylum seeker is an official designation for those immigrants who leave their countries, often because their lives are in danger, and apply for asylum in another county. Because asylum seekers aren't citizens and haven't acquired official immigration status, they aren't immediately eligible for most public housing programs offered through state and local housing authorities. They also are not allowed work permits for a period, leaving it to the city to provide financial support.

Even if they were eligible and had the ability to pay, housing is so scarce in Greater Portland that there's a two-year wait for an apartment in a Portland Housing Authority property, and a five- to seven-year wait on a statewide list of 25,000 people seeking federal Section 8 housing vouchers.

Geyer referenced some of these challenges in his report.

"Efforts are underway to attempt to fill gaps in service, with a renewed appreciation for everyone working in this space," he wrote. "However, even with all of the combined efforts, the sheer number of individuals in need of support continues to stretch available resources."

The city recently hired a resettlement coordinator to assist families staying in the city's Family Shelter, many of whom have recently arrived in Maine and are seeking asylum. The new staff member will coordinate services to families as they arrive at the shelter and work closely with state partners, surrounding municipalities, social service agencies, community organizations, churches and property owners to help move the families toward self-sufficiency.

Jennings said that's a good step, but he said Portland can't keep continuing to go it alone when it comes to serving asylum seekers — and everyone else needing services, for that matter.

"I would love to have elected officials come down and spend just one week working with our staff to see with what they have to put up with and deal with," he said.

This story will be updated.

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