Officials in the city of Portland are racing the clock to find housing for more than 200 migrant families who unexpectedly arrived after a long, dangerous journey through the U.S.-Mexico border last month. But as the Aug. 15 deadline approaches to close the makeshift shelter currently housing the families, city officials say some migrants are turning down housing in neighboring communities.
And now, some on the Portland City Council are blaming Mayor Ethan Strimling for spreading misinformation and giving anxious families false hope that they can stay. The mayor says such claims are pure election-year politics.
The migrant families, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, arrived in Portland on buses last month and have been staying in a basketball gymnasium at the Portland Expo ever since.
Contractual obligations will close the Expo shelter in mid-August, and that has forced city officials to find housing for approximately 150 families in towns like Brunswick, Bath and Gorham.
But the city’s Health and Human Services director Kristen Dow told the city councilors Tuesday night that families are turning down housing outside of Portland, even though the state is helping with rent and other necessities.
"It's really frustrating and upsetting for staff to work this hard to house these families to have them turn down over, over and over again," says Dow.
Dow's remarks to the city council largely echoed an email she sent last week to City Manager Jon Jennings. But in that email, which was provided to Maine Public Radio, Dow added that city staff, "simply can't compete with a counter-message" from Mayor Ethan Strimling.
The nature of Strimling's discussions with the migrant families he has met with dominated Tuesday's meeting, putting the mayor on the defensive as he forcefully denied that he has played any part in families' decisions to deny housing assignments outside of Portland.
Strimling told the council that some migrants were anxious about moving out of the city, a move that puts them farther from critical resources and requires address changes to make sure immigration and court documents do not get lost, which could jeopardize their asylum cases.
"So when I said to them, 'Of course you have a say, of course,'” Strimling said. "Nobody can you force you to live anywhere that you don't want to live. But understand that if you choose not to go there, you may be living in a shelter for a long time or you may be on the streets. That is a true statement.”
But several councilors, including his reelection opponent Spencer Thibodeau, accused the mayor of sending mixed messages that could have dire consequences for families who do not take housing assignments outside of the city.
That is because the council has backed a policy that says anyone who refuses a housing offer made by their caseworker can no longer stay at the shelter.
Thibodeau says not making that outcome clear poses a real risk to the migrant families, who could end up at an overflow facility that is open only at night and provides no meals or medical care.
"Because when you give any sort of equivocation about what is going to happen, people believe that their best option is what they know," Thibodeau said. "That's why when we say something we have to be clear about it."
Strimling denies that his message to migrant families was not clear, and he says his intent was to explain that the families could return to Portland later if they wanted or could afford housing there.
But Councilor Belinda Ray, who recently dropped her bid to challenge Strimling this fall, described the mayor's actions as reckless and worthy of censure.
"Policies have been misconstrued to people in a way that puts them in peril, and I'm not comfortable having someone speak for the city who cannot speak correctly on city policies," Ray said.
Ray's assertions stemmed in part from an email written by a shelter worker last week that chronicled a meeting between Strimling, Councilor Pious Ali and several migrant families.
The shelter worker, who was doubling as a translator during Strimling's meeting, described the mayor as questioning the city policy, adding that no one will be asked to leave and, "that no one should be forced to live in a place he does not want."
But the worker’s email also confirmed part of Strimling's assertion that he told the families they may have to leave Portland, but could potentially come back.
Councilor Pious Ali also backed Strimling's account during Tuesday's meeting, but the subsequent chain of email responses last week from city officials blamed the mayor for spreading misinformation.
Again, Strimling stood his ground, telling the council it knew families were refusing housing assignments long before his conversation with them was documented by the interpreter.
"Might you remember that the night before, that night actually before I went down to the shelter, the city manager came down and talked to us and said there's already a problem, they don't want to take the housing," he said.
On Wednesday, Strimling told Maine Public that his opponents on the council were using the migrant families as political pawns and the controversy to mar his reelection bid. He also questioned the origin of a city policy that could soon impact dozens of migrant families if they refuse housing assignments.
Maine Public has requested a copy of the policy, but city officials were unable to provide any additional information by airtime.