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Congolese and Angolan immigrants find housing in Old Orchard Beach - but the stay is temporary

The sun shines through the porch of a two story vacation rental property on a two lane street.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
The late afternoon sun glints through the porch of one of the vacation rental properties in Old Orchard Beach where asylum-seeking families are living this winter. The asylum seekers interviewed for this story asked that their photos not be taken, a common request among individuals whose immigration cases are still open.

With the summer tourists long gone and many of the hotels shuttered for the season, Old Orchard Beach is pretty quiet these days. But, once a week, one parking lot near the beach is bustling with families speaking Lingala, Portuguese, and French.

Every Tuesday, social service agencies set up shop in the parking lot to distribute groceries, childcare supplies, and winter clothing to the roughly 20 asylum-seeking families living in small apartments next door - most of whom are from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Speaking in Portuguese, an Angolan man named João said he’s been living in Old Orchard Beach for about a month. For João and other asylum-seekers in this story, we’re only using first names to protect their identities as their asylum cases remain open.

When João first arrived in Maine this fall, the city of Portland placed him in a motel with his wife and their two young children. They were among hundreds of asylum seekers living in motels in the Portland area as Maine’s largest city contends with a shortage of affordable housing and shelter space.

João said living in a motel room for a month was difficult.

"There's nowhere, for example, to do laundry, [or] to cook," he said.

João said the conditions at the Old Orchard Beach properties are a little bit better - the apartments are small, but each one has a kitchenette, and there’s a laundromat next-door.

Marielena, an Angolan woman and mother of a 1-and-a-half-year-old child, was also living in one of the motels before moving to Old Orchard Beach.

Here, she said, speaking in Portuguese, they have everything they need.

"You can cook, you can do whatever you want," she said. "We're doing well, by the grace of God."

A grey apartment building with white porches and external walkways on a street.
Ari Snider
One of the two vacation rental properties where the families are living this winter. Some residents said it was an improvement over the motel rooms they'd been living in previously.

But this arrangement is temporary, and the families will need to find permanent housing before they have to move out at the end of April.

"We're looking as much as we can to find permanent housing, preferably in York County," said Chelsea Hoskins, refugee resettlement coordinator for the city of Portland. "But it doesn't mean that there's suddenly all this housing options here, either."

Even though these families don’t live in Portland, they still fall under Hoskins’ responsibility because it's a temporary housing situation, paid for through Portland's general assistance program.

Hoskins said some families have already moved into permanent housing, and their apartments were opened up to other asylum seekers. But, she said, it’s highly unlikely that all the remaining families will find long term housing before the end of April.

"Otherwise, they'd go back into whatever overflow situation might look like at that point, if we're still on hotels or whatever else is happening," Hoskins said.

Despite the harsh realities of the southern Maine housing market, some locals said this part of York County stands to benefit if some of the families do manage to settle down here.

"We have a huge need for employees," said Sam Smithwick, English language coordinator at Biddeford Adult Education, which is just up the road from Old Orchard Beach. Smithwick is involved in coordinating support to the families, and also sees many of the parents in his classroom.

Smithwick is optimistic that once they start getting their work permits, the adults would be able to find interim employment in fields such as seafood processing or manufacturing COVID-19 tests, before hopefully re-entering the professions in which they already have expertise.

"Many of them are university graduates, we have an IT manager, two nurses, a great many entrepreneurs in the group," he said.

As the food and winter clothing distribution wrapped up, some families had already returned to their apartments to begin cooking dinner, while others lingered in the parking lot, chatting.

Among them was João, who said despite the challenges of securing an affordable place to live, he wants to stay in Maine.

"There's tranquility here in Maine," he said. "That's why I would like to live here."