“Portland has had a tradition of receiving and welcoming asylum seekers, but we’ve never had this situation before, with so many people arriving at once. I am proud of the City Council, city staff, other cities in the greater Portland area and all the non-profits that have responded so swiftly in order to support our new neighbors, as well as the Governor for extending her support” – Pious Ali
With an August 15 move-out deadline looming due to prior contractual obligations at the Expo Building, and an affordable housing crisis that has been intensifying for years throughout Maine, Portland city and community leaders have drawn together a strong coalition to locate housing for the asylum seekers who began arriving in Maine on June 9. It’s “all hands on deck” as the deadline nears.
Kristina Egan, Executive Director of The Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG), convened the coalition, which includes immigrant leaders, faith organizations, representatives from the City of Portland, Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), Maine Housing, Avesta Housing, and the Compassionate Housing Initiative in Yarmouth. Ms. Egan said her staff has pushed other projects aside to focus on this high-profile, public emergency.
“We’ve been happy to do that,” she said. The group has launched “Host Homes,” one important arm of an overall housing plan that also includes moving some of the approximately 70 families into rental units in the next few weeks, as well as after seasonal housing stock traditionally opens up at the end of the summer season. Host Homes has begun to match asylum seekers with host families to provide short-term housing for some families. Immigrant leaders involved in crafting Host Homes include Pious Ali, Deqa Dhalac, Papy Bongibo, Mufalo Chitam, Claude Rwaganje, Micky Bondo, Nsiona Nguizani, Baby Ly, and Claudette Ndayininahaze.
“We are seeing significant movement on the volunteer hosting front,” said Chris Hall, Director of Regional Initiatives and General Counsel of GPCOG. “As of July 25, 36 host families had been screened by CIEE, and immigrant leaders had begun meeting with these families to begin the matching process. “GPCOG’s job is to keep the pipeline moving,” he said. His office is developing a list that they hope will be sufficient to meet both current and future needs.
Because of the housing shortage in Portland, some families of asylum seekers are being offered housing outside of the Portland area. Some asylum seekers at the Expo have expressed anxiety about living outside of Greater Portland, without easy access to transportation, immigration lawyers, or friends and familiar services. Despite their anxiety, they understand that housing is limited, and that Portland does not have enough affordable housing for all of them to live in apartments in the city right away. Mr. Hall said, “If families who initially leave Portland wish to return, they should feel secure in knowing that their friends and services will not forget them. They will still be there.” Volunteers have stepped in to help the families get established in different towns and cities, and some community members who cannot host have offered transportation and other help. Cultural trainings have begun to help local residents and newcomers get to know each other. Asylum seekers who have already moved to Brunswick told immigrant leaders they love their new situation. They say they are sleeping well, and that it feels great to be in a house.
Ms. Ndayininahaze, a cultural broker and co-founder of In Her Presence, said that cultural orientations are key for those families that move into areas without an established African community. In Her Presence, Catholic Charities, Portland Family Promise, and the City of Portland have already begun leading orientations to help mitigate fear of the unknown on the part of both immigrants and their hosting communities and families. Ms. Ndayininahaze emphasized that small-group orientations work best. The plan is to “follow the families as they move into the community to continue cross-cultural support, to involve schools and neighborhoods, in order to build relationships and trust. Resources is one thing, but the social component is crucial,” she said. Carolyn Graney, program coordinator of Hope Acts, encouraged towns welcoming African newcomers to set up a community center staffed by volunteers, where newcomers can gather, immigration lawyers can meet with clients, cultural trainings can take place, and people can build community.
According to Ms. Ndayininahaze, cultural trainings should include a focus on food preparation. Those living in host homes will want to know specifics of whether the kitchen is available to them all day, or at certain times only, and when they should cook dishes that may take many hours on the stovetop. Those living at a distance from stores that sell ingredients used in African dishes will need help getting to those stores on a regular basis. In Portland, those stores include Save a Lot on St. John Street; Moriah Store on Cumberland Avenue; Hannaford on Forest Avenue, and L’Africana Market on Brighton Avenue (which offers delivery service). Lewiston has a wide range of stores on Lisbon Street.
To learn more about becoming a host family, visit: https://www.host-homes.com
If someone has a rental unit(s) or a property, please contact the City of Portland’s Social Services Division 207-775-7911.