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State to create additional housing for asylum seekers

State officials said they don't know where a planned temporary emergency shelter would be located or when it would open.

PORTLAND, Maine — After months of calls for help to the state by municipalities supporting asylum seekers, state officials Thursday announced a preliminary plan to help house asylum seekers and those experiencing homelessness.

"We're doing all we can to assimilate folks here at the same time that we have a massive undersupply of housing," Greg Payne, Gov. Janet Mills' senior housing advisor, said.

According to Payne, the state is working to open a temporary emergency shelter for individuals experiencing homeless that could house roughly 280 people. 

Payne said the state is also working to renovate a number of housing units that could help house around 140 asylum-seeking families, totaling around 400 people.

State officials don't yet know when the new shelters will be open, or where they'll be located. Payne said the Mills administration is working to have them within 30 minutes of Portland.

Payne added that those seeking asylum who stay at one of the renovated homes would be able to receive rental assistance for two years while they wait for work authorization documentation to be processed.

Mills included $22 million in the state's supplemental budget for emergency housing assistance. Payne said the state is also looking for additional hotel rooms where people experiencing homelessness and asylum seekers could be housed.

The announcement of the state's plan comes following a growing call for additional support from municipalities and community organizations. 

Earlier this week, the city of South Portland said it could not guarantee housing to those that arrive in the city. The city of Portland sent the same message earlier in the month. Both said their shelters and hotels are at capacity. 

RELATED: Portland no longer guarantees shelter upon arrival to city

Jessica Grondin, the city of Portland's communications director, said 23 families, totaling 65 individuals, stayed at Portland's family shelter Wednesday night. More than 300 families, or 1091 individuals, were housed in hotels.

"Community partners and everybody that's working on the ground is doing amazing work, but we can't do it alone," Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West said. 

Following Portland's declaration that it could not guarantee housing to those that arrive in the city, community partners have been working to help those in need find housing. 

Mufalo Chitam, director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, said 43 asylum seekers are currently staying at the Easpoint Christian Church in South Portland.

"What we are doing at Eastpoint is running an extended shelter with the community. That calls for state leadership, that calls for state coordination," Chitam said.

Last week, Chitam wrote a letter signed by 79 nonprofits and community organizations calling for increased support from the state. 

"We can't continue working in silence. This calls for a coordinated way of response," Chitam said. 

West said she supports the state's plan to create additional housing as Maine continues to see an influx of those seeking asylum. She said, however, that Portland needs help, particularly in the arrival process when asylum seekers first come to Maine. 

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