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Portland-area groups submit proposal to use Unity campus as transitional housing for asylum seekers

Unity College
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
The Greater Portland Council of Governments says a transitional housing community at Unity Environmental University's campus in Unity would have a lower per-person cost when compared to the southern Maine motels currently housing several hundred asylum seekers.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments has submitted a proposal to use the campus of Unity Environmental University — formerly Unity College — as a transitional housing community for as many as 600 asylum seekers.

Belinda Ray, the Council's director of strategic partnerships, says after much discussion, there is broad agreement that the campus in Unity is a good fit for transitional housing, with dorms, dining facilities and space to set up legal and medical support systems.

Ray said her group submitted the proposal after discussions with state and municipal agencies, social service providers and immigration advocates.

The proposal pegs the cost of a one-year lease at $7.8 million, including meals, utilities, public safety and other services.

"And as we started to dig into the numbers, we found that at a cost-per-person basis, it's actually cheaper than using hotels for this purpose," Ray said.

As written, the proposal estimates the per-person, per-day cost of housing people at the Unity campus would be $36, compared with $73 at a hotel in Saco and $175 at one of the hotels in South Portland.

Ray said initial preference would be given to single asylum seeker adults or those with children who are not yet school age, to minimize impact on the local school system.

She also said the plan would benefit other unhoused individuals by freeing up resources in municipalities currently supporting large numbers of asylum seekers, pointing to Portland's recently opened Homeless Services Center as one example.

"Right now, between 160-180 of those shelter beds [at the HSC] are occupied by asylum seekers who would be better served by transitional housing," Ray said. "And, in turn, those shelter beds could be freed up for people who are currently in encampments."

While Unity is a small, rural town far from many established immigration-focused services, some advocates said they don't see distance as a major barrier.

Claude Rwaganje, executive director of ProsperityME, a Portland-based nonprofit that works closely with immigrant communities, said his group will go wherever its services are needed, if there's funding to support it.

"We definitely will take our services where people are," he said. "So, if we have 500, 600 people at Unity College, it's an hour and a half, I don't see a problem of us going there."

Rwaganje said even though the asylum seekers his group works with would prefer to live near Portland, he believes many would relocate farther away if stable housing were available.

Rwaganje said if the plan is to succeed, the local community should be given information about how immigration has benefited other Maine towns, citing the economic activity that Somali business owners have brought to downtown Lewiston.

University president Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said in a statement that the university has not received a formal proposal, but "is willing to help if there is a proper plan in place with the state, town, and advocacy groups."

"We are in the unique position of having the majority of our students choose distance learning and low residency in multiple locations," he said. "Therefore, we have underutilized capacity and infrastructure that could be used as transitional housing, which we communicated to GPCOG."

Greg Payne, the Gov. Janet Mills' senior housing advisor, said in a statement the administration is reviewing the proposal.

"We appreciate the effort by so many partners to propose options for housing and shelter in the state and expect to have discussions with the organizations about this proposal in coming weeks," he said.