Asylum seekers protest living conditions at Portland Expo shelter and lack of longterm housing options
On a rainy morning, dozens of asylum seekers came out onto the sidewalk in front of the Expo building on Park Avenue.
A handwritten message on a cardboard sign on the curb asked, after Aug. 16 – the date the city has set to close the shelter - “where are we going to go?”
It was a question troubling Paulo Nanque, an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau, a small, Portuguese-speaking country in West Africa.
“Where are we going to stay?” He said in Portuguese. “I don’t know, only God knows that.”
Nanque said he and his 11-year-old son have been staying at the Expo for close to three months. They're among around 400 people who have passed through the Expo since the city opened it as a temporary shelter for asylum seeker families in April.
Currently, there are about 270, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We’re protesting because there’s no solution, we don’t have housing,” said Esperança Mateus, also speaking in Portuguese, who’s been living at the Expo with her husband and four-year-old son for about three months.
Mateus is from Angola, where she worked in accounting. She said she and her husband fled the country in part to seek a better future for their son. Like many asylum seekers in Maine, Mateus said she and her family travelled overland through South and Central America to reach the southern border and make an asylum claim.
Sleeping on a camping cot in a crowded shelter, she said, is not what she imagined her life in the U.S. would look like.
“A lot of people are suffering from stress,” she said. “Headaches, you think it’s a normal headache, but really it’s the stress.”
Several hours after the protest began, Portland officials visited the Expo to speak with residents.
Mayor Kate Snyder said the city has worked hard to expand emergency housing options, and that the whole state is dealing with a shortage of affordable housing.
"There's of course some frustration about what comes next," she said. "And that's that's what we had an opportunity to talk about today was the fact of a difficult housing market. But the fact that we as a city are working with as many partners including the state and the federal government as possible to to work through some solutions"
Some residents also complained that they had been served expired food. The city's health and human services director Kristen Dow said she doesn’t know of any specific examples of that happening, but since the Expo does handle a lot of donated food, there could have been an expired item.
Dow said the city is also working to bring in more culturally preferred foods, and that conditions at the Expo are an improvement over previous shelters.
"This is a much better environment, and we will continue to work with them to meet their needs. But I see a bunch of people who might not be fully happy with with the situation and are afraid of what will happen on Aug. 17. But we are actively working every single day to try to help them," Dow said.
Dow and other officials made clear that the city does not have an instant solution to the housing and emergency shelter crisis. Still, the mood at the Expo seemed to calm after the meeting
Toto Capitão, a man from Angola, said he and others at the shelter really wanted the mayor to show up in person, to see firsthand the conditions people are living in.
Paulo Nanque, the man from Guinea-Bissau, said he and other protestors were happy to see city officials show up in person to talk about finding solutions.
"Now," he said, "We're hoping that turns into action."