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Portland Scrambles To Provide Food, Housing - And Winter Clothes - To Arriving Asylum Seekers

Ed Morin
Maine Public/file
Cots are set up July 24, 2019 at the Portland Expo for the first big wave of asylum seekers who came to Portland over the summer. The Expo is not available to help house the most recent arrivals.

Roughly 180 asylum seekers have arrived at the Portland bus depot in recent weeks, forcing quick action by city staff and non-profit groups to find temporary and permanent housing, food, access to social services and education.And winter clothing too.

"The families arriving aren't prepared for the weather," said Kristen Dow, at an emergency City Council meeting Monday night. Dow directs the city's Department of Health and Human Services."We have families arriving at the bus stop in flip flops, in shorts, in the middle of the night." 

Dow said for the most part, the city has been able to handle the influx of immigrants, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa. But she adds that, unlike this summer, there is now no large-scale facility available to help absorb overflow, as schools are open and the Portland Expo Center is in use for professional basketball.

"So if there was someone that had day space, can staff it, and they have showers, that would be ideal," Dow said.

The University of Southern Maine might be able to help out over the holiday break, said City Manager Jon Jennings. And he said he is asking the office of Gov. Janet Mills for more.
"I said I thought we are OK right now in terms of funding," Jennings said, "but the real critical need is for the governor to intervene from a leadership perspective to bring all of us together from a regional and statewide [effort]. Because this is not just a Portland issue, and it shouldn't be just a Portland issue."

When more than 400 asylum seekers arrived in the city this summer, donors sent in nearly a $1 million to help out, and neighboring municipalities offered assistance as well. Councilor Jill Duson called for some of that to be spent on a planning process that would allow staffers and partners to step back from the whirlwind of immediate needs and create a template for coordinated action in the future.  

Duson likened it to building an airplane in mid-air. "Examine the plane we had to build, and figure out where the holes are, if there are ways we can plug those," she said, "and figure out in what ways can we really cement the relationships that had to be built in emergency."

That drew wide support from fellow councilors.

In the meantime, city manager Jon Jennings said he has out put a call to Catholic Charities - often the initial sponsor for asylum seekers when they reach the southern border - to make potential migrants aware that Portland has reached its sheltering capacity for the time being, at a time when Maine's winter weather adds a significant challenge.

Updated Dec. 17, 2019 at 8:42 a.m. ET.