Portland groups renew call for statewide coordination amid asylum seeker housing crisis
On a recent evening in Portland, families were trickling into a new emergency shelter at a Salvation Army gym, run by the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
Among them was an Angolan man named Jose, who arrived in Portland four months ago with his seven-year-old son and his pregnant wife. Jose is not his real name – he asked to use a pseudonym given the sensitivity of his asylum case.
Jose, who worked in computer science in Angola, said he was also an activist in a regional independence movement, which put his life in danger.
"Yes, I was afraid," he said in Portuguese. "Because if I stayed there, I could die."
He said he and his family fled first to Brazil, then traversed South and Central America by bus and on foot to reach the U.S.
Jose said he’s tried applying for housing, but has come up empty because he doesn’t have a work permit or credit history.
"As immigrants, we don’t have all these things yet," he said in Portuguese. "I don’t know what we can do."
Hundreds of recently arrived immigrants in Portland find themselves in a similar bind. More than 780 asylum seekers, mainly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have arrived in Portland this year. The city is providing emergency shelter to about 950 people – mostly new immigrants – on a nightly basis.
To relieve some of the burden on the system, the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition opened the Salvation Army shelter earlier this month, with funding from the housing and energy assistance package passed by the state legislature in January.
But Charlie Gauvin, the Coalition’s resettlement and integration manager, said it immediately reached capacity.
"Long before the doors to the Salvation Army opened, and the first bed was put down, every bed space was spoken for," he said.
Now, 77 people, mostly families with young children, sleep on mattresses on the floor of a basketball gym.
Gauvin said the space isn’t ideal. Families need to leave by 7am so the gym can be used for other activities. While the kids go to school, most of the adults spend their days at the local YMCA, where they get access to showers three days a week, there are none on site at the gym.
Despite the shortcomings, Gauvin said his group is doing what it can to respond to a crisis.
"While this is by no means an ideal shelter solution, or model," he said, "It's keeping people [...] from having to sleep outside in the Maine winter."
And Kristen Dow, who runs Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the new shelter crucial.
"I don't know what we would be doing, if we didn't have that," Dow said. "Honestly, we would be we would be in a really tough position."
Still, Dow said one new facility only buys the city so much time.
What's needed, she said, is coordination at the state level to reinforce local shelter, school, and health care systems that are on the frontlines of asylum seeker resettlement.
"I am fearful that these systems are gonna start cracking and breaking. And if you have systems that are breaking in the largest city in our state, that is a statewide crisis," Dow said.
Dow and Gauvin also pointed to a couple other key issues that they said could alleviate the housing crisis facing new immigrants in the Portland area – including more investment in affordable housing statewide, and Congressional action to shorten the months-long wait period before asylum seekers are allowed to become employed.
City officials have also identified dedicated transitional housing as another key part of the housing puzzle.
For now, though, city agencies, nonprofit groups, and immigrant community organizations say they are doing what they can to assist new arrivals.
"We have to step in and try to help at the means that we can," said Mardochee Mbongi, president of the Congolese Community of Maine. His group helps shelter residents with translation, housing applications, transportation, and other basic needs.
Mbongi, who works the nightshift at Abbott Labs, said he tries to be onsite at the shelter several hours each day.
He said it’s a tough schedule, but that he feels obligated to help.
"We know deeply what the concern and the needs are. It is just hard to walk away from that," he said.
Meanwhile, Jose, the father from Angola, said he’s worried that living in a crowded shelter is putting a lot of stress on his seven-year-old son, who recently started school.
"As a father," Jose said in Portuguese, "I try hard to distract him a little, so that he forgets what’s going on here."