Donors Help Fund Portland's Program to Aid Asylum Seekers

"We have, for decades, been a welcoming place," said Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling.

The Wall Street Journal printed an article this January. It was titled "Maine's Largest City Strains Under Asylum-Seeker Influx."

Normally, Portland gets attention for its livability and cuisine. But the national newspaper article put a spotlight on something else unique — Portland's longtime culture of welcoming immigrants.

"We have, for decades, been a welcoming place," said Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Strimling says the Wall Street Journal article proved Portland welcomes immigrants no matter the cost.

The proof is in the city's budget, in the Community Support Fund, which distributes money to asylum seekers through Portland's general assistance program.

It primarily helps the asylum seekers pay rent and housing costs, but some money goes to household needs like diapers.

Until 2015, Maine's state government provided this type of assistance, but now, Portland provides it alone at a high price.

In 2019, city shelters are overflowing and the $200,000 fund is $35,000 over budget.

Individual Portlanders are stepping in to help, and the city is willing to accept it.

Monday night, the Portland City Council formally voted to accept $45,000 in private donations meant to support asylum seekers through the Community Support Fund.

The debate now has shifted to finding a permanent funding source.

Some city leaders say giving money to asylum seekers year-over-year is too expensive.

The fund also prevented the city from getting a $68,000 federal police grant because of the city's support of non-citizens.

"Some are recommending we get rid of this fund, we wind it down," said Strimling. "I think there's a strong belief that should not occur."

Until that debate is settled, more private donations could come in.

Jennifer White, an organizer for the Portland Harvest Festival, says all proceeds from this fall's event will be given to the Community Support Fund.

"We want to help because we care about all families and we believe that helping each other is the best way to live," she said.

Strimling says he welcomes the money but hopes the state will eventually find a way to support asylum seekers again.

He says there is incentive to keep them because new immigrants could help solve Maine's aging problem.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the direction our state is going," he said. "Young, skilled workers are what we need, and that's what we get from asylees."

Portland's city manager has previously said the Community Support Fund would not be phased out all at once.

The city has, for the time being, stopped accepting applicants for the program.

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