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Maine Finds Home for Several Hundred African Asylum Seekers

More than 200 African asylum seekers will be in homes while others are expected to end up in a homeless shelter

A frantic scramble has produced homes for most of the hundreds of African asylum seekers whose arrival flooded shelters in Maine's largest city.

A coalition of groups steered more than 200 of the new arrivals to homes. But some are expected to end up in a homeless shelter after a temporary emergency shelter closes Thursday.

The city closed its asylum shelter in the Portland Exposition Center Thursday afternoon. Over the two months of its operation, the facility housed 448 people, many from African countries like Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo, for varying lengths of time.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said 78 people were at the shelter Thursday morning, and expected at least 26 of them to head to temporary homes in Brunswick by the end of the day.

By 9 a.m., city employees had begun moving cots set for asylum seekers and any homeless people who needed a place to stay.

Whoever was left at the Expo after the final lunch service around 1 p.m. was asked to leave, onto the street.

Asylum seekers still without homes could use the city's family shelter and an overflow shelter at the Salvation Army if needed.

Even without having the Expo to return to, the asylum seekers are allowed to use city resources to help find housing.

The City of Portland now has more than $900,000 on hand in a Community Support Fund, a combination of city money and donations meant to help the asylum seekers buy food and supplies.

Some of that money has been used to hire additional staff whose explicit directive is finding housing for asylum seekers.

Through interpreters, families headed to host homes said they were grateful for a new start.

"The first thing I am going to do is relax and deep breath," said Junior Dimanja. "I'm extremely happy to be moving out."

Some concern remains because host families typically only keep asylum seekers for about two to three months, as they wait for a judge to approve their asylum claim and get the OK to start working.

While that Community Support Fund is healthy at the moment, more asylum seekers could come to Portland, which is definitely not out of the question because the city gets several families of asylum seekers each week.

But Thursday, optimism remained high.

More than enough host families have stepped up to take in those in need.

City leaders say a greater difficulty will be providing a means for the families to get around because most do not have driver's licenses or cars.

"One of the outstanding challenges is to make sure the families living in these new communities actually have transportation," said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Anyone interested in helping provide transportation for the asylum seekers can fill out an application here.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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