By Kathreen Harrison

When the Expo Center in Portland opened on April 10 as a temporary shelter to accommodate asylum seeking families seeking a roof over their heads, the deadline of August 16 for move-out day already loomed large. As City of Portland Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow said at the time, “We’re moving people in on Monday, but on Tuesday we’ll start working on how we will be able to move people out.”  

Now August 16 is at hand, and  192 individuals out of an original 300 were still living at the Expo on August 11 at the end of the day, according to Jessica Grondin, Director of Communications for the city. The 108 individuals no longer at the temporary shelter have either found apartments, are in regular shelters, have moved in with friends or community members – or have left the state.  

Finding permanent places to live for so many people – many of whom arrived in family groups , with some families large – is a huge challenge in an affordable housing market with inadequate stock, but the city is doing what it can to make sure the families do not end up on the street at the end of the week. So is the Quality Housing Coalition (QHC), which is leading an innovative effort to match people with host families, who will be compensated at the General Assistance rate for renting space in their homes. 

Victoria Morales, director of QHC, said on August 9, “We have had over 100 inquiries across the state to rent rooms in their homes. We are optimistic…We are asking everyone who has extra space in our larger municipalities in the Greater Portland area, Biddeford, Saco, Sanford, Freeport, Lewiston, Auburn, Bath Brunswick, Augusta, and Bangor to reach out for more information.” The program is called Homeshare.

Quality Housing Coalition has a long record of working effectively with asylum seeker families and individuals through their Project HOME, which not only locates rental units, but requires tenants to sign an agreement to work with a mentor. The program has an excellent record – no tenant placed by Project HOME has ever been evicted. Morales said, “We are asking and encouraging all landlords and all short term rental operators to reach out about partnering with us this year. Every partner will receive our financial guarantee and year-long housing mentorship to support a successful housing experience for all.”

Jessica Grondin from the city said,”To ensure these families remain sheltered after the Aug 16 closure, we are in negotiations with hotel properties in two communities in the Greater Portland area to rent rooms on a month-to-month basis…we don’t anticipate having to use these hotels for very long. This is a stop-gap measure since we know the Expo had to close. We will not be back filling these hotel rooms.”

“There is much suffering here,” one resident of the Expo told a reporter in French recently. Another talked about hope. “The worst is behind us,” he said. “After traveling through so many countries, and the Darien Gap, with five children, and surviving – nothing can be as bad again.”

The worldwide population of forcibly displaced people has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 117.2 million people are expected to be forcibly displaced or stateless in 2023. In 2022, 4.9 million people were asylum seekers. And numbers just keep growing as climate change and violence threaten lives. In the face of such statistics, the number of migrants making their way to Maine is tiny. However, for a mostly rural state, tucked way up into the northeast of the country, the inward flow is significant. Over 1,600 people have arrived in Portland since January.