Officials Scramble to Find Homes for Maine Asylum Seekers

The city of Portland must turn over the Portland Expo to a minor league basketball team and have it completely empty by Aug. 15

Officials in Portland, Maine, are scrambling to find places for more than 200 asylum seekers who are living at an emergency shelter before it closes in three weeks.

On Aug. 7, the city has to begin turning over the Portland Expo to a minor league basketball team. The center must be completely empty by Aug. 15.

It's an effort that led to a heated disagreement during a Tuesday night city council meeting, as a dispute about whether or not the asylum seekers had been told they needed to be out and what would happen if they didn't have a place to go boiled over into the public.

Some councilors accused Mayor Ethan Strimling of telling the asylum seekers they didn't have to accept places being found for them to move to.

"Your options are: take the housing that staff is working very hard to get for you or take the option that nobody wants to talk about..," city councilor Spencer Thibodeau said.

That option is going to another temporary homeless shelter in Portland and spending at least some time on the street.

Strimling said that wasn't what he intended to communicate in remarks to the media on Wednesday.

With all the back-and-forth that had played out, community leaders took action that same night, going to the Portland Expo to explain what was going on to the asylum seekers in more clear language the leaders thought they would understand better.

"There might have been some miscommunication and need of explanation of situations," city councilor Pious Ali said during a news conference Thursday to explain what community leaders had done and why the air had been cleared.

"They are willing to go wherever they are sent because any place is better than what they have right now at the Expo," Claude Rwagnje executive director of ProsperityME said.

With some communication hurdles cleared, Rwajne said more than 100 families have asked to host asylum seekers but only 20 have cleared applications to take them in.

Rwajne said assistance with that paperwork is being done by the Portland-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

"I visited a family this morning and I was very impressed," said Rwajne. "I even told the family that, 'I wish I'd known you a long time,' because [they were] so friendly."

Friendships like that will be needed to meet next month;s deadline and find the asylum seekers transportation and jobs though there has been outreach.

Companies across the state have asked Portland's city manager if any asylum seekers would like to come work for them and immigrant community groups have already begun planning to meet transportation needs.

Gov. Janet Mills has also opened state general assistance funding to help the asylum seekers meet basic necessities as they await a judge's decision on whether or not they will be granted permanent asylum status.

One unknown is the fate of the more than $800,000 in Portland's Community Support Fund, meant to help the asylum seekers.

Ali said Thursday some of that money, a mixture of taxpayer and individual private funds, should go towards paying the city staff for caring for the asylum seekers and any other overtime incurred.

A meeting for councilors to discuss that was scheduled for Thursday evening.

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