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Amid acute housing crisis, church groups step in to shelter newly arrived immigrants in Maine

ChurchHousing1_Snider
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Pastor Jacques Kanda, who ministers at Heaven First Church in Portland, is sheltering 17 asylum seekers in his 4-bedroom home in Portland. He said he views them as his own family, but isn't sure how much longer he can continue supporting them on his own.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the kitchen at Jacques Kanda’s house in Portland was bustling. One woman peeled potatoes, while another stood at the sink trimming fat off chicken legs. Kanda lifted the lid off a pot of Congolese pork stew on the stove.

"This is makoso, do you know makoso?" Kanda said with a laugh. "This is specific African food."

Mealtime is a major undertaking here, because Kanda, a case manager and a pastor at Heaven First Church, is sheltering 17 Angolan and Congolese asylum seekers in his 4-bedroom home.

Kanda, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said he got a call from the Portland Family Shelter last month asking if he had room for a few families. He agreed, a decision he said was guided by his faith.

"We are doing what God recommends us to do, just to share love, to assist people in need," he said.

ChurchHousing2_Snider
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
A woman named Paciencia prepares chicken legs in the kitchen at Pastor Jacques Kanda's house in Portland. Paciencia is one of 17 recently arrived immigrants taking shelter at Kanda's home.

While Kanda said he's raised some money from his congregation and gets support from local immigrant advocacy groups, he said he’s still spending close to $700 per week of his own money on groceries, in addition to buying winter clothes.

On his breaks from work, he shuttles the families to and from the shelter downtown, where he hopes they might be able to get some help finding long term housing.

"I'm trying to do my best to take care of them," he said. "But I know it's not easy. It's very, very difficult, but we have to do so."

Kanda is one of several church leaders in the Portland area taking in asylum seekers this winter, as the city shelters remain at capacity and the end of a federal rental assistance program last year made it harder for aid groups to place families in motels that have long served as overflow housing.

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Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Cots set up in the gym at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland. The church is part of a network of congregations in southern Maine sheltering 17 asylum seekers this winter.

One recent evening at Trinity Episcopal in Portland, Reverend Peter Swarr welcomed three Angolan families, all with young children, who will stay here for the next two weeks.

Swarr said when the request to host the families came in right before Christmas, the timing felt significant.

"And we're talking about a story of a man and a woman, pregnant, traveling to a foreign town, looking for shelter. And there's no place to go," Swarr said.

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Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Three of the kids being housed through Greater Portland Family Promise wasted no time donning princess and superhero outfits upon arriving at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland last week. The families move from church to church every two weeks.

Trinity Episcopal is part of a network of nine congregations associated with the nonprofit group Greater Portland Family Promise, which focuses on addressing homelessness. Together, the churches are taking turns hosting these three families, 17 people altogether, rotating every two weeks.

Swarr said he's happy to be part of this effort, but is concerned at what he sees as a lack of long term planning from the state level agencies.

"Is this just through the winter? Or how long is this going to last? And the honest reality is, we have no idea," he said.

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Ari Snider
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Donated food in the kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland.

Among those arriving at the church was a woman named Julianna, an environmental engineering professor from Angola who came to Maine with her four young children.

Speaking in Portuguese as her two-year-old daughter babbled softly in her ear, Julianna said moving from church to church every two weeks hasn’t been easy – but that it’s one of the best options her family has found, and, they’re just thankful for it.

Greater Portland Family Promise, the group that’s organizing this rotational model of emergency shelter, has been trying to find more stable housing for the families.

"We'd like to find a large facility that we could house a much, much larger number of families with all the boots on the ground, but we haven't been able to identify a space," said GPFP executive director Michelle Lamm.

The emergency heating and housing assistance package signed by the governor earlier this month did include funding intended to help towns and aid groups address homelessness at the local level. But Lamm said she believes the state should take the lead in addressing the problem.

"A lot of us with local groups are looking for a statewide solution," she said. "Although we have heard time and time again that it needs to take a local solution. So it's frustrating."

ChurchHousing3_Snider
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
The sign outside Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland offers a message of welcome in English and Portuguese. The church is part of a network of congregations hosting three asylum seeker families this winter.

In a written statement, Greg Payne, the governor's housing advisor, said that in addition to the emergency shelter funding in the heating assistance package, the governor’s office is continuing to work with local communities and advocates to find options for asylum seekers in particular.

For now, though, the burden of providing stopgap emergency shelter is still falling on people like Pastor Jacques Kanda.

Kanda said he’s reaching out to anyone he can think of to help locate longer term housing, adding that he’s not sure he can continue hosting these families on his own beyond next month.