Portland City Hall
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Interim City Manager Danielle West said Monday that Portland was at a “cliff” concerning their ability to house asylum seekers, citing the need for further support from state and federal governments.

“The situation is becoming untenable,” West told the City Council Monday night, describing situations where warming shelters are being pressed into service to serve as housing, where asylum seekers have to sleep in chairs because there aren’t enough beds.

There have been more than 550 incoming asylum seekers needing shelter since Jan. 1, a “higher than average” stream of newcomers that, combined with current efforts to support unhoused people in the city, is “taxing us significantly.”

West pressed the need for additional support from both state and federal governments.

In addition to warming shelters, the Oxford Street shelter is at capacity, and the city has used a Portland Public School gymnasium as shelter space. Portland is housing more than 1,000 people per night in various places, including the city’s family shelter, the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, and multiple hotels, including ones in Saco, South Portland and Freeport. 

“Staff is doing the best they can with their resources,” West stated. “The cliff may be coming where we aren’t able to meet the need. That’s my biggest fear.”

As “the leaders in the city,” Councilor April Fournier wants to provide support and find “sustainable housing” for those who need it, she said, adding to the call for more regional and state aid.

“There are no great solutions without statewide coordination and help,” Fournier said.

Councilor Mark Dion criticized those who believe West and the Council aren’t doing all they can to help unsheltered individuals. He said it was “disrespectful” to question the work and compassion of the Council and city staff, and then requested that Gov. Janet Mills provide additional support to Portland.

“We can’t wait and hope they show up, we’re beyond that now,” he said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said that calls from the public for officials to open city-owned buildings as shelter space are misguided. They don’t have enough trained staff to do that, Snyder said, adding that “you can’t just open buildings.” Snyder cited recent brutally cold temperatures to highlight the need for a true emergency shelter.

“Our job is to use our voice,” the mayor said. “We are doing that. We are at the cliff because every time the temperature dips, we are worrying about how to make sure people aren’t freezing overnight. I beg for people’s engagement, I beg for your voice in Augusta.”

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