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Mills administration proposes $16 million for emergency housing

A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

The Mills administration is asking state lawmakers for tens of million of dollars in additional money for housing programs at a time when some Republican lawmakers are criticizing state spending on asylum seekers.

Gov. Janet Mills has proposed spending $10 million of a more than $250 million surplus on a program that provides zero-interest, forgivable loans for construction of affordable house complexes. Mills proposes allocating an additional $16 million to a program that funds homeless shelters, warming shelters and transitional housing across the state, including for programs that support asylum seekers.

Over the past two years, the state has budgeted roughly $34 million to shelter and support asylum seekers, who are prohibited under federal law from working for at least six months after applying for asylum. Some Republican lawmakers have accused the Mills administration of prioritizing asylum seekers over Maine residents who are homeless or in need of subsidized housing.

But Greg Payne, the governor's housing advisor, disputed that characterization Friday afternoon while testifying to the Legislature's budget-writing and housing committees.

Payne said one transitional housing program that has received attention from Republicans in recent weeks — a converted Saco hotel capable of accommodating up to 85 asylum seeking families at any given time — is proving to be a success story. The shelter, which is run by Catholic Charities of Maine, has housed more than 550 people. Nearly half of those people have since moved into permanent housing and about 100 participants have secured employment.

While staying in Saco, families receive assistance applying for asylum and work permits as well as job training, English lessons and other help transitioning into Maine. The program received $14 million in state funds.

But Payne said other programs within the Emergency Housing Relief Fund have been used to rapidly re-house hundreds of Maine residents and to construct a new project to house more than 40 chronically homeless people in Bangor. And Payne said other money from the fund was used to open additional shelter space in Portland as the city attempted to temporarily house people living in large tent encampments.

"The Emergency Housing Relief Fund is providing critical supports to both long-time citizens and new Mainers," Payne said. "No group is being prioritized over another and no group is being excluded from our care and support. And we will not turn out backs on anyone experiencing homelessness in our state."

But the request for additional money to support programs for asylum seekers is likely to encounter GOP opposition. Republican lawmakers have ratcheted up their criticism of spending on asylum seekers in recent weeks, accusing Mills of allowing newly arrived immigrants to "cut the line" in front of Maine residents in need of housing support.

"What we have on the table right now is a state where people are flocking to from other states because of the programs that are in place right now, that were put in place by the Democrats," Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said during a recent press conference. "Those are all factors that bring more people to Maine that otherwise wouldn't be coming here and, frankly, shouldn't be coming here."

Lawmakers are just beginning the process of reviewing the governor's supplemental budget request.