Asylum seekers from the Congo in the snow Tuesday, Dec. 17, outside Portland's warming center at 58 Chestnut St., which can hold 35-40 people. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
advertisementSmiley face

The city is struggling to help a large number of asylum seekers who have arrived from the southern border in recent weeks.

Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow told the City Council Monday that 52 families, or 188 individuals, have arrived since Nov. 18.

Shelters are full, and the city is placing people in overflow spaces. There were 89 people in several overflow shelters Dec. 15, Dow said, and a peak of 97 people in overflow on Dec. 10.

One of the main problems is the unclear expectations of the asylum seekers who arrive.

People line up Tuesday, Dec. 17, outside Preble Street, the nonprofit shelter that provides meals and day shelter space in the afternoons for asylum seekers. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

“They believe they are going to have the same accommodations that some of their friends have had over the summer, where everything is in one place, where meals are provided on site, and that’s just not our normal overflow operations,” Dow said.

In the summer the Portland Exposition Building was used as an emergency shelter, but it is in use now by the Maine Red Claws basketball team. Now people must move from overflow spaces, which are available only at night, to different locations throughout the city for meals, and then back to one of the overflow shelters, carrying all their belongings with them.

Some asylum seekers also arrive unprepared for cold weather, Dow said, wearing shorts and sandals.

City staff are working to communicate the reality of the present situation to asylum seekers considering coming to Portland, through agencies at the border and though Congolese and Angolan community liaisons.

City Manager Jon Jennings told councilors the majority of asylum seekers have had bus tickets provided by Catholic Charities in Texas. He said he has had conversations with Catholic Charities leadership in Maine to send the message that other locations should be considered.

Jennings said he learned that a communication was sent from the U.S. Conference of Bishops that it was not appropriate to send people to Portland at this time of year, particularly when they were not aware of the weather conditions and that they were being sent to a shelter.

Since then, he said, he’s heard that other communities in other states have been stepping up to offer support.

The city, meanwhile, is urgently trying to find overflow daytime shelter spaces. A warming center on Chestnut Street can accommodate only 35-40 individuals during the day. Dow said the biggest need is for a day-shelter space with shower facilities.

Another need is for staff to run a day shelter. City staff are maxed out, Jennings said, running night overflow spaces and trying to find housing for the families and individuals who have arrived. Dow said that of the 52 families who have arrived recently, 11 have been housed.

“Staff have been doing an amazing job,” Dow said. “When I look at the numbers it’s kind of staggering to see 188 individuals coming in in less than a month. Looking at the challenges, it is important to share those with you, but we have had a lot of success already.”

Children seeking asylum are enrolled in Portland schools, and efforts are made to house the families of those children in Portland. Dow said 33 students have been enrolled in city schools. Once a student is enrolled in Portland, if the family is housed in another school district, the Portland School Department is required by federal law to provide transportation for students who live up to one hour away.

City staff are looking for help from outside Portland, but so far have received no assistance from other municipalities. Jennings said that the University of Southern Maine is considering opening a stadium as a shelter space for a short period. Many nonprofits are assisting, including the Congolese Community organization COCO Maine, The Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, and Preble Street, which provides meals and has offered day shelter space beginning at 1 p.m.

Jennings said he has also asked Gov. Janet Mills to help develop a regional response to the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Portland.

“The real critical need is for the governor to intervene from a leadership perspective to bring all of us together regional(ly) and statewide, because this is not just a Portland issue, and shouldn’t just be a Portland issue,” Jennings said.

Councilors suggested a regional body should develop a response plan and agreements outlining specific responsibilities of each community. They suggested some funding be set aside for city staff to document the responses they have developed.

Funding, donations

Finance Director Brendan O’Connell updated the council on funding for asylum seekers.

The city received $920,000 in donations during the summer, when more than 450 asylum seekers arrived between June 9 and Aug. 15, O’Connell said. The city spent $415,000, of which about $100,000 was already budgeted in the fiscal year 2020 budget.

Since then, the city has spent $200,000 to house asylum seekers, and expects to be reimbursed 70 percent from the state. The first reimbursement check, between $25,000 and $30,000 for July, has already been received, O’Connell said.

The city hoped to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement of asylum-seeker expenses incurred this summer, but the application coverage period ended June 30. Instead, the city applied for reimbursement of overtime and other expenses at its family shelter in the covered period, and received $864,000 in reimbursement.

The city is now accepting applications for reimbursement from any community partners that incurred expenses providing assistance during the wave of asylum-seeker arrivals in the summer, which will be funded from the donations already received.

The city is using the same criteria FEMA uses for reimbursement, the primary criteria being housing and food, and secondary criteria being transportation and supplies. O’Connell said the city distributed 30 applications for reimbursement, and has received two or three.

He said the city will begin reimbursing community partners in January.