More than 250 asylum seekers remain huddled in a Portland sports arena, sleeping on cots nearly two months after the building was transformed into a crowded emergency shelter, and city officials cannot guarantee they all will be housed before an Aug. 15 deadline to leave.
Most of the new arrivals are expected to be placed by that date, when the Maine Red Claws basketball team takes over the Portland Expo again. But those who have not received housing “effectively would be homeless in a way that nobody wants to see,” said Chris Hall, who works for the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
The process has been complicated by an extremely tight housing market in Portland and surrounding communities. Even before the latest wave of asylum seekers began arriving June 9, thousands of applicants already had been waiting for subsidized housing in and near Maine’s largest city.
“They have come to us at the worst possible moment for housing,” said Hall, general counsel of the planning group, which is helping find shelter for the migrants, many of whom said they fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
City officials and partner organizations are scrambling to ensure that no more than 110 of them are homeless by Aug. 15. That total equals the number of beds available at two other city-run shelters in Portland.
But those overflow shelters are designed for overnight stays, not all-day occupancy.
“We’re working hard,” said Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city. As of Thursday, city officials had placed 48 families representing 144 people in available housing units, she said.
Maine has developed a widespread reputation for welcoming asylum seekers and refugees over the past decade, but this surge to Portland — 414 arrivals in less than two months — is unprecedented for such a short period.
“This is relatively new terrain,” Hall said.
Most of these asylum seekers entered the United States at the Texas border, many outside the ports of entry, and announced their desire to seek asylum from life-threatening conditions at home and to continue to Maine, immigration advocates said.
They were provided transportation to Portland, primarily by bus, and have a year to file a formal asylum claim. Most of them are not allowed to work for at least six months after that claim is filed, said Julia Brown, advocacy and outreach attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, based in Portland.
They all have undergone legal processing by US officials and been given notices to appear in court, said Brown, whose group is providing legal assistance to the asylum seekers. Why they were not detained, as so many Central American migrants have been, is an open question, she said.
“We’re not sure why some people are treated one way and some are not,” Brown said.
Asylum seekers, who generally arrive at the border unannounced, are a different category from refugees under US law. Refugees, by contrast, apply from abroad for approval to enter the United States.
Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said the newcomers, drawn to the city by its established Congolese and Angolan communities and a sense of safety, should not pose a burden on local taxpayers.
General assistance benefits from the state will cover 70 percent of the cost for basic necessities such as housing, food, and medical care. The remaining costs — primarily for housing, Strimling said — should be covered by more than $900,000 in private donations that have been received from 40 states and more than 250 Maine communities.
“I’m so proud to live in the City of Portland right now,” Strimling said. “We’re showing the world that’s there’s a better way than putting kids in cages and separating families.”
Not everyone feels so sympathetic. Strimling acknowledged that there has been some grumbling over the migrants, particularly from outside the city. Through it all, offers of housing have arrived from developers and landlords in many parts of Maine, including Lewiston, Saco, Biddeford, and Brunswick.
“Because Portland has long been a city for refugee resettlement, I think that we’re in a good position and more accustomed to having citizens from different cultures,” said Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine, which is helping asylum seekers with translators and cultural orientation to a strange, new world.
Grondin said the city cannot guarantee it will be able to secure enough housing by Aug. 15, but that she remains hopeful a way will be found. The city has hired four additional temporary staff -- two housing counselors and two financial eligibility specialists -- to match asylum seekers with housing units, she said.
The Greater Portland Council of Governments and other groups also are working to match asylum seekers and Maine families willing to offer space, which might be needed for one or two months until longer-term options are secured, Hall said.
By Tuesday morning, 61 volunteer hosts had been vetted, he said. The next step is for hosts to meet with local immigrant leaders, in part to discuss the needs of specific families, some of whom might never have seen a dishwasher or doorbell before.
The work should continue for the foreseeable future as asylum seekers continue to travel to Portland. Last weekend, 25 more arrived in the city, officials said.
“It’s been a remarkable effort, and people have stepped up from every corner — from the food to legal assistance to health care workers to volunteers,” Strimling said. “It’s been incredible.”
The mayor added that he feels confident enough housing will be found in the short time remaining.
“It’s good to have a deadline,” he said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.