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City of Portland: No further shelter, hotel capacity for asylum seekers

Published: May. 7, 2022 at 7:56 AM EDT
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PORTLAND, Maine (WMTW) - The city of Portland has informed federal immigration authorities and community partners it has “no further shelter or hotel capacity” to welcome or house asylum seekers from abroad.

Saturday Morning Maine

The email sent Thursday morning by the city’s Health and Human Services director, Kristen Dow, bluntly advises recipients, “If your organization sends a family to Portland, Maine, they are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival to our shelter.”

The email was sent to immigration officials at the southern U.S. border, U.S. Customs & Border Patrol, and Federal Emergency Management Agency, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s office, and Portland’s city council and mayor.

The note was also forwarded to community and state partners who have been helping settle asylum seekers.

The email from Dow reads:

“I am writing this email to alert you to the fact that as of the date of this email, there is no further shelter OR hotel capacity in Portland, Maine. We have been over capacity in our shelter for quite some time and have now reached the point where the hotels we have been utilizing are also full.

“Please know, that as a result of our capacity limitations, if your organization sends a family to Portland, Maine they are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival to our shelter. Additionally, because our staff are spread quite thin, it is not guaranteed that we will be in a position to aid individuals in their search for emergency housing. I ask that you all share this information widely within your organizations and with families you are working with.”

Commenting on the letter from the city health director to immigration authorities and community partners, Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West said: “It’s definitely to say if you send such individuals, we won’t have the capacity to be able to help them due to our staffing as well as our inability to have access to hotel rooms, so yes it is to say, ‘We’re at capacity, please send them to other communities.”

West said the city is currently housing 1,771 people — more than 1,200 asylum seekers and more than 500 local homeless people in its city shelters and in hotel rooms in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Yarmouth, Freeport, and Auburn — six cities in three counties.

West said, “The tourist season is upon us, so hotel rooms have been pretty scarce.”

She added the number of host families down due to the lingering pandemic.

Prior locations used to house asylum seekers since 2019, such as the Portland Expo or the YMCA, are not available.

Cities like Old Orchard Beach that once offered hotel rooms no longer do.

The state reimburses Portland for 70% of its costs to house asylum seekers, while FEMA covers 30%.

“So we do have the money in the budget,” West said, though the city is waiting on reimbursements. “Looking more into next year is where we really see the issues, because the FEMA money will go away.”

Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, who received the email, said her group does not bring people to Maine.

Chitam said in an interview, “People come here, because they know someone, and we’ve never asked anyone to come to Portland as an organization. But people are connected, because of the service that they’ve received here, because of their families. Some have family roots here, some have just people that they know, speak their language, and their culture.”

Chitam continued, “So, no, we won’t be able to tell anyone to stop coming here.”

If Portland will no longer welcome and assist asylum seekers, Chitam said, “Is there another town that will step to do that – that’s a question.”

Chitam said she was disappointed in the state.

She said, “People are suffering because of lack for what we’ve asked for from the beginning. We’ve been asking for state coordination.”

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