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A housing crisis for asylum-seekers is getting more dire as federal funds dry up, groups say

A row of doors at a motel.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
More than 115 asylum-seekers living at a roadside motel in Freeport will have to find new housing arrangements by the end of the month, when the pandemic-era Emergency Rental Assistance program is set to expire.

On a recent afternoon, Christina Bondonga, an outreach worker with Freeport Community Services, was checking in on asylum-seeking families at a roadside motel in Freeport, knocking on doors and chatting with people in the hallway.

"Basically, I’m like the first contact for everything," Bondonga said. "Things about [the] hospital, immigration appointments, school."

For one resident, a woman named Louange, the most pressing issue was housing. With funding from the Emergency Rental Assistance Act, or ERA, set to expire at the end of the month, all 115 or so motel residents will have to find somewhere else to live.

Speaking in Portuguese as her one-year-old daughter toddled around the hallway, Louange said she's sad and stressed out, not knowing where she and her kids are going to go.

Louange and her family are among hundreds of asylum-seekers in the state facing a similar situation.

Sarah Lundin, executive director of Freeport Community Services, said, as of now, there’s no backup plan.

"Certainly it's a state of emergency, in my opinion, that that we are looking at having so many folks truly homeless on the street," she said.

The end of ERA is impacting thousands of families across the state, regardless of immigration status. But Lundin said asylum-seekers are at a particular disadvantage because, under U.S. immigration law, they are not allowed to work in the U.S. until six months after they file their asylum case.

In Freeport, Lundin said, general assistance funds are not going to be able to make up for the loss of ERA.

"So it's kind of like this multi-level issue that that just creates truly that perfect storm of lose-lose, no matter what way you look at it," Lundin said.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, said her group is already witnessing a preview of what the end of ERA could mean for asylum-seeking families.

That's because MaineHousing stopped accepting new ERA applications in September, and Chitam said her group has been scrambling to find shelter one night at a time for about ten asylum-seeking families who arrived after that deadline.

"So those 10 families are being shuttled around, they're distributed around people's homes, some churches," Chitam said.

Chitam said she would like the state to provide stop-gap funding to keep people in hotels through the winter months, while also working to create long-term shelter options.

Kristin Dow, Portland's director of health and human services, said more state support is also needed to manage the public health consequences of the housing crisis.

"When we have pregnant mothers who are giving birth, and have hospitals calling saying, 'Okay, where is this mother and newborn baby going to go after they're discharged from the hospital?' And there is no discharge plan for shelter, that's a crisis," Dow said.

Dow said she sees a clear role for the state to play as an intermediary between municipalities that are struggling to provide adequate support for newly arrived asylum-seekers.

"We need some centralized intake process," Dow said. "And we need a coordinated effort to make sure that services are getting to all of these individuals in different municipalities."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills said "the Governor and her Administration are continuing to examine options to ensure people and families affected by the [ERA's] end have a safe place to be for the winter, including potentially extending emergency temporary housing supports for Maine people and families, especially those most vulnerable who may be at great risk of experiencing homelessness in the coming months.”

Meanwhile, at the motel in Freeport, some families are finding housing through informal networks. Augustino, a father of three from Angola, said he has a lead on a house, thanks to a local woman whose daughter is classmates with one of his daughters.

Speaking in Portuguese, Augustino said leaving the hotel would have probably meant moving to another town – but that the woman wanted his family to stay in Freeport, so the two kids could remain close.

Augustino said he's been told discussions are underway with the landlord – and he hoped to get an answer in the next few days.