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Portland housing for asylum seekers reaches capacity

According to city staff, Portland is supporting 478 asylum seekers, surpassing the number supported in 2019 at the Portland Expo.

PORTLAND, Maine — The City of Portland is facing a housing crisis, and those seeking asylum in Maine's largest city are now struggling to find homes. 

According to a memo written by Portland's Director of Social Services Aaron Geyer, the city is currently supporting 478 asylum seekers. Currently, asylum seekers are being housed at Portland's family shelter and area hotels. 

According to that memo, however, the shelter and local hotels partnering with the city are reaching capacity. 

"Currently, we have 31 families for 88 individuals on-site at the family shelter with four rooms open to absorb after-hours arrivals. Hotels, which are paid and processed through Portland’s General Assistance, have a census of 119 families for 390 people. The 478 individuals in families sheltered by the city exceeds the total number of individuals assisted in the summer of 2019 when the city opened the Expo," Geyer wrote in the memo. 

Geyer wrote in the memo that Portland is now looking for alternative housing solutions.

"With capacity at both the shelter and area hotels being reached, we continue to connect with hotel owners in an attempt to locate additional rooms to shelter families. We have reached out to hotels in Westbrook, Portland, Scarborough, Auburn as well as the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce to gauge membership interest with regard to potential winter rentals. Capacity remains our greatest challenge," Geyer wrote.

Those that work with asylum seekers working to find housing, like Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), who also serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Quality Housing Coalition said overall, Maine is short roughly 20,000 housing units. 

"What we know right now is that action is needed. We need to create more housing units, permanent and temporary, so we have to be creative about how we do that," Morales said.

The Quality Housing Coalition is a group that brings together private sector entities, nonprofits, and government resources to fight the Greater Portland area's housing crisis.

"We are seeing a lot of folks come here because they have connections to Maine because we are a welcoming place, and we should be because we want to have families and children come make their homes here in Maine," Morales said.

Morales said she's working with local landlords, nonprofits, and even local churches in an effort to find additional housing. 

Leaders in the City of Portland now say they need more support. 

"We're doing everything humanly possible that we can do, it's just we need others to step up," Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said. 

Jennings is calling on leaders from neighboring cities and towns to assist with resources including staff and funding to held address the crisis. 

"We only have too much bandwidth. I think everyone expects the City of Portland to do all of this on their own, and what's incredibly frustrating is the absence of state leadership and regional leadership. And that is what we really need help with to try and deal with the volume of people that are coming here," Jennings said.

On Tuesday, Portland's Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee met virtually, and one of the agenda items was a discussion with Geyer and city staff about the current housing crisis facing the city's asylum seekers. City councilors serving on the committee include Mark Dion, Belinda Ray, and committee chair Tae Chong. Portland city councilors agreed Tuesday evening that nearby municipalities need to come to the table to help support asylum seekers. City staff said at the meeting Tuesday they're overwhelmed with the amount of work this is placing on staff.

"This is still an issue that is much bigger than the City of Portland and we need all of those communities to dive back in with us," Councilor Ray said.

City councilors said during the meeting they now plan to call on Mayor Kate Snyder to convene a meeting with neighboring mayors to request support and resources. 

Portland DHS Director Kristen Dow said during the meeting she has "genuine concern" about the current staff capacity. 

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