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Confusion, tensions linger between Portland city councilors, mayor and asylum seekers

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is accused of giving asylum seekers false information about housing options -- allegations he continued to deny Wednesday.

PORTLAND, Maine — City leaders are just three weeks away from the deadline for asylum seekers to be out of the emergency shelter at the Portland Expo building -- but for many, the future remains hazy.

There are a number of questions that remain about housing and what's next for these families -- on top of that, rising tensions between city staff and Portland's Mayor Ethan Strimling.

The confusion all started with an email alleging Mayor Strimling was giving false hope and information to asylum seeking families at the shelter. It said asylum seeking families are declining housing opportunities that the city has arranged for them, and the options are limited.  

RELATED: Tempers flare in Portland City Council over next steps for asylum seekers

Portland City Councilors held a workshop Tuesday to give city staff guidance in relation to asylum seekers and next steps.

Staff members expressed concern over the lack of interest from newcomer families in housing opportunities outside of Portland. 

"Now we're trying to ramp up and get people housed, and I would say it's really frustrating and upsetting for staff to work this hard to house these families to have them turn down over and over and over again," said Kristen Dow, the director of Portland's Health and Human Services division. 

Some councilors say that Mayor Ethan Strimling contributed to the confusion over housing placements for newcomer families. Strimling, however, continued to deny those allegations when speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon.

He says his message has been consistent, and he's never told families they didn't have to leave the city. Strimling says he had heard families at the Expo had concerns about what was next for them, and he went there to console them and hear their worries. 

"The families had been complaining that they were uncomfortable with the placements before any conversation I had with them," Strimling said. "Upon learning of that, I went down to the shelter to talk to the families to try to make sure that they had a better understanding of what was going on."

He says he told families that in the United States they have a choice and are not forced to live anywhere they don't want to, but says he explained their options could be limited in the future if they deny housing now. 

"If you don't take the housing understand that that may mean that you'll be in a shelter for a long time or that you may be homeless and those are not choices that I think you should take." Strimling said.

Instead, he pointed the finger back at city councilors, accusing them of causing division.

It's something Portland city councilor Belinda Ray says she is not surprised to hear. Saying this game of deflection is one Mayor Strimling plays when he's accused of doing wrong. She pointed out that city staff has never struggled with placing families in the past, and she would like to see politics stay out of the Expo.

 "Over the last four years, I think that Mayor Strimling has strained his credibility, so I have a hard time taking his deflections at face value," Ray said. "I think what we need to make sure we are doing is keeping political leaders out of the mix...because they aren't involved in finding housing and offering social services, and they shouldn't be communicating and confusing messages."

To add to this game of he said, she said -- asylum seekers we spoke with Wednesday say they are still confused about who is supposed to be finding them housing. Multiple families say they were told it was up to them and worry about what's going to happen to them and their families come mid August. 

"To find housing or an apartment you need to know the language and we don't know English, we don't have knowledge of the area -- so what are we supposed to do?" asylum seeker Jean Paul said through an interpreter. "And now we are being told we have to leave this place -- where do we go? What do we do?"

Only one of the families had heard of someone actually denying housing. They heard it was because she would have been living with five other families in one home.

So where does this issue stand now? The finance committee is taking up the question of how the donation money and the community support fund will be used Thursday night.

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