Posted on July 19, 2022

Maine’s Open Door for Refugees Meets a Housing Shortage

Doug Struck, Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 2022


Portland, Maine, population 68,000, is 84% white and tucked snugly away from any border problems – the Canadian border five hours away catches the occasional migrant walking north into Canada.

Yet the city that has been one of the most benevolent in America toward outsiders now finds itself with 1,200 newcomers, most from Africa and the Caribbean. They have come to Portland because they heard it had received fellow travelers humanely. Most speak no English; they have no money, no relatives or friends to house them; and they are not allowed to work for a living as their appeals for asylum slowly crawl through the system.

Its shelter filled, the city has put them up in motels while COVID-19 and winter created vacancies. But now the innkeepers want their rooms back for tourists, and Portland has no place to put them.

And still they keep coming.

Portland’s city health director took the extraordinary step in May of emailing agencies working on the southern U.S. border, telling them that immigrants “are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival” in the city. The adjoining municipality of South Portland sent a similar message, and 79 local aid organizations followed with letters to the state of Maine and the federal government saying they were stretched too thin.

“We are at capacity, just unable to manage anymore,” says Danielle West, the interim city manager of Portland.

The announcements have brought cries that an urban area known for its welcoming culture now wants to shut its doors.

What does a city do when its ethos of compassion collides with the reality of no vacancy? How many refugees are too many?

Many places harbor a sense of benevolence toward outsiders. In remote parts of Alaska, people leave their cabin doors unlocked to offer safety to desperate travelers. Middle Easterners still observe the obligation of hospitality to strangers.

Sometimes the welcome comes on a grand scale: More than half of Jordanians are Palestinians. Poland has accepted 3 million refugees from Ukraine.

Sometimes the generosity is quietly personal: Hundreds of Berliners have opened their homes to Syrians fleeing a brutal civil war. They call it Willkommenskultur – welcome culture.

But does the calculation change when newcomers crowd the house? The question is growing in urgency: The United Nations estimates the number of people who have been forced from their homes by wars, violence, hunger, and climate change has now reached 100 million – the highest on record.


“Immigration into Maine has been the lifeblood of our state,” says Ethan Strimling, a former mayor of Portland. “Every generation that has built our city has been an immigrant generation. And if we didn’t have the immigration into the state, our population will just be declining dramatically.”

For years, newcomers here made it on their own. Reza Jalali landed in Portland 37 years ago when what he calls his “bad poetry” angered the government of his native Iran. The U.S. offered him refuge. The State Department gave him a book of black-and-white photos to pick a new home.

“The pictures from Maine looked fantastic,” Mr. Jalali recalls. “Except they were all taken in the summer. There should have been a disclosure that said, ‘Please don’t expect this for 11 months of the year,’” he adds, laughing.

But he has stayed, raised a family, earned advanced degrees, taught college, and written books. He is now head of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

Recent arrivals to Maine have made headlines before. Somalis surged to the sagging industrial town of Lewiston in the early 2000s. Their presence brought controversy and pushback – the mayor publicly told others not to come. But the immigrants restored vacant houses, started businesses, and filled the schools with new voices.

In Portland, three years ago, a sudden influx of 450 Africans arrived when Mr. Strimling was mayor. The city scrambled to put cots in the city’s sports arena for two months, private citizens donated nearly $1 million to help, and people opened up spare rooms to house the strangers.

That success, with some irony, helped bring the current wave from Africa. In the cellphone age, immigrants and refugees plumb the internet and contact earlier migrants through WhatsApp. If they make it across the U.S. border, many ask to go to Portland because they’ve heard other Africans are there. It is natural: Travelers “will take the safety of an established community,” says Mr. Jalali. Border agents and aid groups comply. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan sent 100 more refugees to Maine.

Portland helped migrants in ways many other jurisdictions did not. It placed new arrivals in the city’s family shelter until that was filled, and then in motels. The city now has 1,200 immigrants housed in 12 motels across seven jurisdictions, according to local officials.

Other cities and towns often give immigrants vouchers for housing, but require the new arrivals to find dwellings on their own – a daunting task without the language skills, ability to get around, or basic knowledge of a community. Portland also offers vouchers for food – and aid organizations also cook communal African meals. Most of the 350 families who arrived recently have young children; the schools are a chorus of languages. A legion of nonprofit organizations has taken root in Portland that provides legal, transportation, and other assistance to the newcomers.


But this spring, the return of a post-pandemic tourist season brought a crunch in motel rooms, and the continued flow of asylum-seekers overwhelmed Portland’s efforts.

“The number of people that we’re seeing arriving is not something anybody had anticipated,” says Ms. West, the interim city manager. “They just keep coming, coming to Portland.”

In the letter it sent out, the city contacted about 30 aid groups and government agencies working on the U.S. border, urging them to direct asylum-seekers elsewhere. Portland would continue to issue legally required vouchers, but newcomers would have to find housing on their own. The letters brought headlines: Portland says “No vacancy” for asylum-seekers.

The move has not stanched the flow. {snip}


Activists and officials also are frustrated because the newcomers could help solve the state’s most looming problem – a labor shortage. Maine’s aging population is the oldest in the country, and the flight of younger people out of the state exacerbates job vacancies. But federal regulations do not allow asylum-seekers to work until their applications are heard, which often takes more than a year.


The state wants the new arrivals, says Greg Payne, senior housing adviser to the governor. But the big problem is a long-festering shortage of affordable housing.

“I think we need to figure out, how do we moderate the pace of arrivals in a way that prevents it from becoming a humanitarian crisis when they arrive?” he says.

Mr. Payne notes that the state is reserving 100 rooms in a Comfort Inn in Saco, 16 miles south of Portland, to help ease the burden, and is moving to lease more affordable housing for two years. The state has also added $22 million for emergency housing in the budget.

City officials stridently resist the argument that their letters to groups along the southern U.S. border, saying there was “no more room,” is an attempt to close the doors of Portland.

“I don’t think that was the message,” says Belinda Ray, who works with the Greater Portland Council of Governments. “We’re spending ridiculous amounts of money to keep people in hotels,” not including food and the array of other services, she says. “It’s not sustainable.” The council is working with surrounding communities to find a more sustainable way to shelter asylum seekers.*

City officials want the state to take over the logistics crisis, knitting the disparate and overlapping local and nonprofit efforts into one coordinated approach, and to provide more housing. They also want the federal government to speed up the asylum process and allow arrivals to work.

But Mr. Strimling, the former mayor, says that’s not what the message from the city sounds like. “One of the things that I think has been great about Portland is that we’ve always said, ‘Our doors are open.’ And that was why so many were so disappointed by the letter from the city,” says Mr. Strimling.

“We have been a city of hope for new young families,” he adds. “And I think that’s vital to our future.”