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Advocates look to college dorms as option for asylum seeker housing

Portland city officials and homeless advocates are calling on the state to help them find additional housing options — including the possibility of unused college dorms — for Maine's growing population of asylum seekers

The request comes as Portland earlier this week cleared an encampment of dozens of unhoused people, including many who said they had no place to go because nearby shelters were full.

The idea, discussed Thursday at a meeting of Portland's emergency shelter assessment committee, is to find other spaces for asylum seekers, so that homeless shelters can be used for the population they were designed to serve, said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community of Housing of Maine.

More than 70% of those at the new Homeless Services Shelter in Portland on most nights are asylum seekers, Ryan said.

"If we can find another form of temporary place for that particular population to be, any bed that we open up immediately opens up that bed for somebody who right now is outside," he said.

The committee, made up of Portland officials, social services agencies and other advocates, will ask the state to explore the possibility of converting unused college dorms into temporary housing.

"It's a big deal when as many as 166 beds are being used by asylum seekers who are really there because of an arcane federal law that keeps people from seeking employment for six months after they secure asylum status," Ryan said. "Even though our [congressional] delegation is working to correct that, and we're hopeful that happens, these people are really stuck in a dilemma and otherwise would not be in a homeless shelter."

It's unclear whether there are any specific, immediate options available on Maine's college campuses, Ryan said.

Unity Environmental University has been approached by local support groups about the possibility of using extra dorms and apartments as housing for asylum seekers, Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, the college's president, said in a statement.

"Many of our students are remote all across the country. Due to our flexible residential model, we have extra dorm space, including several suite-style apartments, on our residential campus in Unity," he said.

Discussions are still in the early stages, and it would likely take additional funds and coordination among state agencies and support organizations to make an arrangement possible, Khoury added.

"Moreover, we aspire to extend our commitment even further by introducing upskilling programs specifically tailored to the educational needs of asylum seekers," he said. "This comprehensive approach aims to empower them with the necessary skills and knowledge to ultimately contribute as productive members of our local communities in Maine and nationwide."

Tory Ryden, a spokesperson for the University of Maine System, said it has no unused dorm space that could immediately house asylum seekers, but that university officials would be open to a discussion if formally approached about the idea.

Empty space within the university system has been converted before on other occasions, Ryden added.

Unused space at the University of Maine at Farmington campus, for example, is being rented as housing for traveling nurses for the nearby Franklin Memorial Hospital. And Ryden noted that dorms can used as housing for summer workers who can't find affordable housing during the tourism season, but those are temporary arrangements for a few months a year when students are gone.

"It really is a situation that needs a longer term solution," she said. "But right now, we don't have these empty buildings that people are referring to."