By Kathreen Harrison and Jean Hakuzimana | Photos Mark Mattos
When unhoused asylum seekers began moving into the temporary shelter set up at the Portland Exposition Center by the City of Portland on the afternoon of Monday, April 10 officials and others involved in helping asylum seekers were already worrying about late summer, when the building will once again revert to its primary role as a space hosting sporting and other public events. All wondered where the approximately 300 people living in the Expo between now and summer’s end will move next.
Surrounded by 300 cots, stacked bundles of blankets – donated by L.L. Bean – and city employees busy planning and setting up the space on April 7, City of Portland Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow said, “We are focusing on setting it up, and we’re moving people in on Monday, but on Tuesday we’ll start working on how we will be able to move people out.”
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. Low and middle-income countries host 74% of the world’s displaced people, including most refugees. 4.9 million people were asylum seekers in 2022. And numbers just keep growing. The violence in Sudan has already led at least 50,000 people to flee Sudan since April 15. 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 1,100 people have arrived in Portland since January.
In recent weeks, Maine is seeing more arrivals from the northern border, following the closing of irregular crossings to Canada from the U.S. due to a policy change to the Safe Third Country Agreement enacted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden on March 24.
Michael Guthrie, Program Coordinator for the City of Portland, spoke in early April about the numbers of arrivals, as well as where they were coming from at that point: “We were averaging about two families a day. But over the weekend (April 1-2) we got eight families; yesterday (April 6) we got four; the day before we got six… they’re coming from the southern border. The majority of them are crossing through California right now.”
Week by week, patterns of arrivals change, but what does not change is that people keep on coming. Portland is the initial destination for most people seeking asylum in Maine, but the greater Portland area has run out of capacity for sheltering unhoused people. The numbers of people staying at the Expo are on top the many hundreds currently housed at other shelters, and living in tent encampments, and other temporary locations.
“There is much suffering here,” a resident of the Expo told a reporter in French on April 28. When people clustered outside the building enjoying the sunshine realized the reporter was French-speaking, she was quickly surrounded with people asking about life in Maine, primarily housing options.
Mardochée Mbongi, President of the Congolese Community of Maine (COCO Maine) would like other towns and cities to respond to the need for emergency housing.
“Other places in Maine might have unused buildings. Last time the Expo was opened as a temporary shelter [in 2019] other cities and towns donated money to Portland to help cover costs – this time they could offer shelter, not just money.”—Mardochée Mbongi
Welcoming asylum seekers into cities and towns outside of southern Maine is a potential boon for areas struggling to fill their workforce needs, Mbongi said. And the need for more people to step up and help find solutions is urgent.
Many of the hotels that have been contracted during the pandemic to serve as shelters are returning to their standard use as lodging for travelers. And while the move-out date has been pushed back a few months, and is now June 30 thanks to Emergency Rescue Assistance money – instead of the previously announced April 30 – for many people living in hotels that date will come too soon they fear.
Mufalo Chitam, executive director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), is also worried. Although pleased about the new June 30 deadline, she said, “the deadline is what keeps me awake at night. We just extended the problem, you know, and that’s why it’s going to be very important in the next three months to come up with solutions that we’ve not tried before.“
Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West is also concerned: “This is a very dire situation and the opening of the Expo is the last overnight overflow space that we as City staff have available to open and operate.”
Guthrie spoke about the challenges he faces in his role overseeing such operations as food services and sanitation — but also the great satisfaction he gets from helping asylum seekers: “ I think it is very gratifying, especially when you see the kids…you look at a kid and you know you’re helping them … the kids are all smiling no matter what their situation is. You go in there in the morning, they’re all smiling, they’re all playing, they’re running around, and you feed off that.”
Most asylum seekers go without case management, health screenings, or legal assistance for many months after they arrive. There is no state-level intake system or state-wide coordination of services for asylum seekers. At the Expo, the city and community partners are doing their best to provide services right there, since 300 people are now living in one place for three or four months, a massive congregate setting unseen during the pandemic.
“People [at the Expo] are working with Greater Portland Health and Portland Public Health to receive health screenings, update vaccinations, and be connected to primary care providers as needed. Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project is providing legal assistance. The Congolese and Angolan communities are among those helping with cultural brokering. “The ideal is to have everything here to have intensive case management so that people can resettle quickly,” Dow said.
But life in a massive shelter, without privacy of any kind, is stressful for families. “There is no individual privacy as far as sleeping and things like that go,” Dow said. And the Expo only houses a fraction of the total number of unhoused people.
Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition has been operating another shelter for months. This involves contracts with the Salvation Army in Portland, and the YMCA. The Salvation Army provides families with space for overnight sleeping only, and during the day families must leave the shelter and go elsewhere. Most opt for the YMCA, but some spend time at the library, in the park, or walking around the city.
MIRC works with a number of organizations who are helping provide services. These include ProsperityME, Furniture Friends, Hope Acts, In Her Presence, Maine Access Immigrant Network, ILAP, COCO Maine, the Angolan Community, Action for Life. Funding goes through MIRC and is distributed according to need. “We have a collaborative way of responding to the crisis. Even the funding is collaborative,” Chitam said.
No one involved on the ground believes it is possible to take care of the needs of unhoused asylum seekers in greater Portland alone. Consensus is that this is a statewide issue. But will the state respond, they wonder. And if not, why not?
OPTIONS FOR DONATION:
Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) is accepting donations for asylum seekers. All money received will go to help provide necessities and help people find housing outside the shelter system.
Follow the link and select ‘Donate’ and ‘asylum seeker crisis.’
Donors can write in preferences for the use of their money. Possibilities include everything from security deposits, first and last month rent, to necessities such as diapers, baby formula, baby wipes, coins for laundry, transportation passes.
How to Donate through the City of Portland:
· Text to Donate: Text the word EXPO to 91999.
· Online here.
· Amazon Registry: Purchase donations via Amazon.
· In-person at the City Manager’s Office in City Hall.
· By Mail: Please make sure any checks say “support asylum seekers” in the memo field. Mail checks to:
City of Portland
Finance Department, Room 110
389 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101