It was overcast at the Quality Inn in South Portland on April 1 as school buses drove in and out of the parking lot, dropping off students whose parents waited for them in doorways.
In one room he shares with his wife Paulina and their infant child, a man named Joel, 32, spoke to a reporter over a phone through an interpreter.
“They put me here,” Joel said, referring to the Main Street hotel. “I have no choice, there is no way you can ask me if I’m happy. I am depending on others..”
Joel and his family are asylum seekers from Angola. They have been at the hotel for three weeks, and he knows it’s not a permanent solution to his need for housing.
The entire Quality Inn is currently used as housing for families in need, and about 95 percent of them are asylum seekers, according to Mike Guthrie, director of the Portland Family Shelter. Throughout the area, Guthrie said, the city is providing housing to 225 families – a total of 776 people – in seven hotels. The reason, he said last week, is that the family shelter is full.
“We’re not going to be able to house our way out of this situation,” Guthrie said, because the number of people in need only continues to grow.
He said the plan is to cycle people out of the hotels based on how long they’ve been there, into the family shelter, and eventually to permanent housing.
It usually takes up to five months from the first time a family checks into one of these hotels to get them into the shelter, where they can be better served by case managers.
Just down the hall from Joel, Serge, 42, has been at the Quality Inn since Jan. 8. He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a father of three, and an asylum seeker. He said he is grateful for the help he is receiving.
“Everything is made available to us here,” Serge said through an interpreter.
Trying to find housing for hundreds of asylum-seeking families is not the only struggle facing Portland’s already stressed shelters: hundreds of homeless adults who are sheltering in hotels will be forced out this spring, in what one city councilor has called a “crazy, daunting situation.”
The city has partnered with neighboring cities and towns throughout the pandemic to procure hotel rooms for single adults and families, but hotels in Old Orchard Beach and South Portland will end that partnership at the end of April and May, respectively.
Nearly 300 people experiencing homelessness will be without shelter at the end of May when the Days Inn and Comfort Inn in South Portland will end their service. Meanwhile, nearly 20 families of varying sizes are sheltering in a hotel in Old Orchard Beach, which is ending its seasonal partnership with the city. The Quality Inn and the Howard Johnson Hotel in South Portland largely provide housing to asylum-seeking families.
‘It can’t just be Portland’
Portland City Councilor Tae Chong, who chairs the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, called this a “huge” and “ridiculous” crisis.
At one time, he said, Portland was housing people in 10 hotels in five communities.
“People don’t understand,” Chong said. “Two hundred and ninety people is how many people we used to house (in the city) in a normal year. Two hundred people are almost as many people as we had at the Expo two years ago. To try to find places for 290 people in less than 90 days during the pandemic when there are no other hotels and apartments, it’s a crazy, daunting situation.”
Chong said the city’s existing shelters could absorb 40-50 people because COVID-19 restrictions are easing, but that still leaves close to 250 people who will need shelter.
He said a regional and statewide approach is necessary to provide a solution, noting that neighboring municipalities like South Portland and Westbrook do not have emergency shelters.
“We can’t keep going to these coalitions and get the same results,” Chong said. “There has to be leadership and it can’t just be Portland. There’s a big geographic area of other towns not stepping up. It’s insane the rest of the state says ‘we’ll let the two big cities take care of this problem.’ It compromises care.”
During the height of the pandemic, he added, the city called on Cumberland County to allow the Cross Insurance Arena to be used as a temporary shelter with services – and county commissioners said no.
“It’s insane,” Chong said. “People say ‘we care,’ but when it comes time to act, they say ‘we didn’t say that.’ That’s where the governor can step in. … Local leadership outside of Portland needs to step up.”
‘The bigger issue’
Kristen Dow, Portland’s Health and Human Services director, said the city knew in advance that the partnership with the Old Orchard Beach hotel would end, that it is a seasonal arrangement. She said she didn’t know exactly how many people would lose their housing, since families at the hotel vary in size.
“We are working to get those individuals into other housing, either temporary housing in that area, or we’ll have to bring them back to hotels in the greater Portland area,” Dow said.
The bigger issue for Portland, she said March 24, is where to house the roughly 290 individuals who can’t remain in South Portland beyond the end of May.
One complicating factor is that the South Portland City Council, in response to complaints and increasing calls for police, on April 19 will take up license renewals for four hotels that have been housing asylum seekers and people experiencing homelessness.
Dow said the Oxford Street Shelter, which will eventually be replaced by a 208-bed emergency services shelter on Riverside Street, is currently only housing about 80 people. Before the pandemic, the shelter could serve up to 154 individuals. But given a lack of staffing, Dow said they don’t feel comfortable placing more than 100 people at Oxford Street.
She said she has regular meetings with state officials, representatives from Gov. Janet Mills’ office, and Maine Housing, to find additional housing.
“We’re trying to find solutions to help find a space that we can use as an emergency shelter temporarily,” Dow said. “We are actively working on that. We are keeping our partners close in the loop here so we can work together to find solutions so these individuals have a place to go on June 1.”
Riverside will help, a little
The city broke ground on March 29 on the Riverside shelter, which is expected to take up to a year to build for $25 million.
Dow agreed with Chong’s call for a regional effort. She said only about a third of those staying at Oxford Street on a given night are from Portland; the majority are either from other parts of the state or from outside Maine.
“Over the years, Oxford Street has become an emergency shelter for the entire state,” Dow said. “We definitely need the assistance of others. I am confident the new shelter can house Portland’s population of people experiencing homelessness. It’s not going to be able to solve the state’s problem.”
Chong said the challenge of housing the homeless is further complicated by trying to house asylum seekers, like those at the Quality Inn.
He said there are about 700 people in the state seeking asylum, and Portland – a city of fewer than 70,000 residents – can’t absorb all of them, let alone the nearly 1,200 people who are seeking shelter in Portland at a given time.
He said a statewide task force should be created to help resettle people throughout Maine, not just in Portland. When Portland is asked to go it alone, Chong said, city staff gets stretched thin and other social services – such as the needle exchange or public health – are compromised.
“That’s the cost nobody is talking about,” he said. “And we have so many vacant positions because it’s so hard to find people. And people in social services, that’s our largest department, people burn out. It’s emotionally, and mentally exhausting. It’s not fair to our clients in this state and the region. If (other communities) actually cared about their neighbors, they would step up.”
Mayor Kate Snyder said funding for these services continues to be an area of concern for the city. She said Portland’s portion of General Assistance it would have been obligated to pay for fiscal year 2022 was covered by the federal government. But a 30 percent obligation for providing emergency shelter is about to become a concern again.
“The impact on the budget will be so significant,” Snyder said. “We’ve been working with the governor’s office and state delegation to request their help in fiscal year 2023.”
She said the city supports a bill introduced by state Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, which would obligate the state to provide 90 percent of GA costs.
“But for fiscal year 2023, the situation is so unprecedented we’re asking the state to cover 100 percent of General Assistance,” Snyder said. “That will give us a year to work to understand how to respond to the number of asylum seekers and the unprecedented number of people who are homeless.”
She said the hope would be in that year, Portland could help develop a statewide resettlement program for asylum-seeking families.
Snyder said she still believes there will be effective resettlement for the asylum-seeking families into Portland family shelters or more permanent housing.
But she called the South Portland situation “a very tricky proposition, and I don’t know the answer to that question.” She said city staff is working to identify other hotels, although continuing with hotels may not be feasible, because of the nightly costs and the lack of hotel space.
“We look at the whole landscape of things and we realize why hotels became so prevalent,” the mayor said, “and it’s not sustainable.”
While the city tries to solve the immediate crisis of where to house nearly 300 homeless individuals by the end of May, families like Joel’s remain at places like Quality Inn – not immediately threatened for housing, but still without any solid idea of where they’re going next.
“My stay here, the hotel,” he said, “is not a permanent living situation.”
Recognizing the ‘real-life consequence’
One of Portland’s partners for providing services to unhoused people sheltered at area hotels is Preble Street, which is assisting residents at the Comfort Inn in South Portland through its Community Case Management Services.
The program connects people with resources and with Preble Street’s Rapid Re-Housing Services program to find new housing as quickly as possible.
Andrew Bove, vice president of social work for Preble Street, said the goal of the Rapid Re-Housing program is to find permanent housing by having case managers work with landlord groups and agencies in the area.
These efforts began last year, Bove said, and the “impending crisis” provided even more urgency.
“The people staying at these hotels are very nervous and concerned,” Bove said. “These are real people who really don’t want to be living in a hotel. People would prefer to have their own permanent housing. So when communities are talking about shutting this down, there’s a real-life consequence to that.”
Bove said Preble Street’s efforts are part of the solution, but not the entirety of it. The organization is involved in weekly meetings with other agencies and the city to try to identify solutions, he said, with the “rehousing ramp-up” being “just one piece of the puzzle.”
“That word urgency is a good word,” Bove said. “I appreciate seeing that and people thinking creatively to figure this out. We’re talking about people that need to have a place to go.”
— Colin Ellis