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South Portland only using one hotel in emergency shelter program

Asylum seekers and unhoused people said conditions are poor and they're worried about when the program officially ends on June 30.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Eric English spent most of last winter living in his car, and he told NEWS CENTER Maine he is preparing to go back to that lifestyle, after spending the last few months staying at the Days Inn near the Maine Mall in South Portland.

"I have a disability, and I was expecting to go over there, and then I got a note that said I'm not on the list," English said.

Dozens of other asylum seekers and unhoused people were able to get a spot at the Howard Johnson Inn, which will now be the sole hotel used for South Portland's emergency hotel shelter program, English said.

For years, South Portland couldn't open a formal homeless shelter because of city ordinances. In recent months, however, new ordinances taken up by the city council allow this, according to a spokesperson for the city.

That spokesperson also said in an email the city has no current plans to open a shelter.

"While the city of South Portland does not intend to establish or operate a homeless shelter, these ordinances create a pathway for organizations to do so for the first time in the city," the city said in an email.

The city used three hotels to serve as temporary shelters for asylum seekers and people experiencing homelessness.

In an April City Council meeting, councilors voted to condense the service down to one hotel.

English said he was left out and will now live out of his car.

Meantime councilors said they are tired of going in circles around the issue and want more cities and towns in Maine to help.

"For anyone thinking of sending their unhoused to South Portland, just don't. Stop. Because we've done our fair share," councilor Linda Cohen said. 

Before the condensation of the three shelters, councilors in February extended the hotel program from February to April 30. Now, the goal is to have the Howard Johnson Inn function until June 30 as an emergency shelter and move everyone out of the Comfort Inn and the Days Inn, which are both close to the Maine Mall.

"After one year here, it's been difficult," Victor Adolfo Pongo said.

Pongo said he's from Angola and sought asylum in the United States more than a year ago. He's stayed at the Howard Johnson Inn for a year and four months, he said.

Pongo said he can't work while his asylum work application is being processed, and the living conditions at his hotel are subpar.

"This is my life every day," Pongo said.

Pongo said he was able to learn some English in Angola before moving but taught himself more from his hotel room.

He uses a crockpot plugged into his wall to heat chicken. He showed us his hair care products and said he cuts the hair of other asylum seekers in the hotel, adding a lot of them do not have money.

"You don't have space here to do anything," Pongo said. "It's like a prison."

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