Asylum seekers are moved from the Portland Expo onto buses that will take them to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
Asylum-seeking families at the Portland Expo were moved to hotels in Freeport and Lewiston on Wednesday as the city closed the temporary shelter that has been their home for the last four months.
About 190 people from 60 families remained at the Expo on Wednesday morning – down from 300 people at peak capacity this spring.
As families loaded onto buses and staff filled U-Hauls with their belongings, some asylum seekers waved goodbye and stopped to take selfies.
The city set the date for the closure weeks ago, saying the sports arena would need to be turned back over for scheduled events this fall.
The move seemed to flow smoothly, and city officials said Wednesday they didn’t run into any problems.
A young asylum seeker waves goodbye to shelter staff as they leave the Portland Expo for hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
“There has been a lot of ‘thank you’ and a lot of people stopping us and saying thank you to the city for everything we’ve done,” said Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow. “People seem to be really happy.”
FAMILIES MOVE TO FREEPORT, LEWISTON
City officials would not release the names of the hotels, citing concerns for the safety of the asylum seekers, but Lewiston officials said earlier this week that 23 rooms had been set aside for asylum seekers at the Ramada by Wyndham Lewiston Hotel and Conference Center.
And Casco Bay Inn in Freeport is serving as the other shelter, an official with New England Hospitality confirmed Wednesday.
The use of hotels as overflow shelters is not unusual.
Kristen Dow, director of health and human services for Portland, chats with an asylum seeker outside the Expo Monday as they wait to board a bus to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city was using a dozen hotels to house homeless people and asylum seekers, including another hotel in Freeport that said in April 2022 that it was canceling reservations through the end of the year to house asylum seekers.
The city has mostly moved away from the use of hotels in recent months, however, because of the cost and the end of pandemic-related concerns with congregate shelters.
On Wednesday, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline expressed frustration around Portland’s plans in a statement to the Sun Journal saying, “Lewiston is a diverse and welcoming city and we will work hard to make the best of this situation. Lewiston seeks to be part of the solution for our community members who are unhoused and it is challenging to do so when we are not part of the decision making process.”
Sheline did not respond to a message left with a city spokesperson seeking an interview and further reaction to the move.
Read the full series: Long Way Home
“It was last minute because we thought we were going to be working with a hotel in another community,” Portland city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. “It might seem like it wasn’t a lot of advance notice, but we were just trying to pull together another hotel to make this work.”
Freeport interim Town Manager Caroline Pelletier referred questions about the use of the Freeport hotel and any impacts on the town to Portland officials.
‘I THINK IT’S GOOD’
Some families who were waiting to leave the Expo on Wednesday said they were grateful and happy to be getting shelter at the hotels, though they’re also eager to find permanent housing.
“We are happy. We appreciate the government efforts on our behalf,” said Doriana Daniel, an asylum seeker from Angola.
Daniel said she will be looking for long-term housing because she knows the Freeport hotel room must be expensive. “I want to find a house very quickly,” she said.
Asylum seekers in Portland Expo will move to hotels in Lewiston, Freeport
“I think it’s good,” said Alliance Perfation, a 16-year-old Deering High School student and asylum seeker who stayed at the Expo with her mother.
“She feels good and happy,” Perfation said.
A young asylum seeker holds onto a few belongings as they leave the Portland Expo for hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
The move attracted a small crowd of onlookers, including Titi de Baccarat, an asylum seeker from Gabon who came to watch and helped city staff load the U-hauls.
De Baccarat said he was in a similar situation when he first arrived in Portland several years ago and lived at the former Oxford Street Shelter. “We want to make sure everything happens well,” he said.
He said the people leaving the Expo were grateful for the city’s help. As he spoke with a reporter outside, a man with a sign taped to his body posed for the cameras.
“Thank you so much to our city of Portland mother for everything you have done for us,” the sign said. “You are a woman of words. You really deserve your power. THANK YOU SO MUCH.”
An asylum seeker leaves the Expo Center wearing a thank you note to Portland while the last remaining families were being moved from the Expo to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
“I also want to say thank you because I know it’s not easy to find housing,” de Baccarat said. “I would love to see this effort for housing people continue, not only to benefit people from Africa but also American people. When I walk down the streets, I see … a lot of homeless people … It’s important to be a city and state where we care, we love, we are tolerant and we are inclusive.”
SERVICES, SCHOOL PLANS BEING SET UP
Portland is paying for the hotels using General Assistance, which is reimbursed 70% by the state. The cost to the city is expected to be about $550,000 with the overall cost around $1.8 million.
City resettlement staff and community groups will continue providing support, coordinating access to transportation and food and helping with housing searches.
Most of the families with school-age children will be staying at the Freeport hotel, which the city is planning to use for up to one year, while the families in Lewiston are primarily those with younger children.
That hotel is expected to be in use for a few months and the city does not have a formal contract for long-term use, Grondin said. She said the city hopes to reduce the number of people in the hotels as housing and spaces at the family shelter open up.
Regional School Unit 5 Superintendent Jean Skorapa said Tuesday that the Freeport-based school district is expecting to receive around 60 new students and they are assessing resources and preparing to support them.
Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said his district is expecting to enroll around 16 students.
Staff and volunteers begin to load the belongings of asylum seekers into a U-Haul that will head to the hotel in Lewiston where a group of them will be staying. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
Portland schools could also receive or continue to enroll students from some of the families since federal law says students who are homeless can continue attending the schools they’re enrolled in even if they move to another area.
A spokesperson for Portland schools said Wednesday they won’t know for certain how many students living temporarily in other communities will decide to attend Portland schools until the new school year is underway, but the district is prepared to welcome any students who choose to attend.
HOTELS JUST PART OF THE SOLUTION
Portland has seen more than 1,600 asylum seekers arrive since Jan. 1.But since the city announced in April that it could no longer guarantee shelter, new arrivals have slowed, Dow said.
“The numbers have gone down since we can’t guarantee shelter but we still see people arrive every week,” Dow said. “And that’s just in the city of Portland. There are other people who go to other organizations and other towns.”
It cost about $540,000 to run the Expo shelter, though some of those costs will be reimbursed by the state through General Assistance, Grondin said.
The city also raised $117,000 in donations to support the asylum seekers. That money has not been spent yet, and Grondin said it will need to be appropriated by the City Council.
Asylum seekers walk down to the bus that will take them from the Portland Expo to a hotel in Freeport on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
Dow told the council earlier this week that 381 people from 114 families stayed at the Expo since it opened in early April. Some of those that have left have found housing, moved into the family shelter or found space at a motel in Portland that accepts General Assistance.
Four families from the Expo have been placed in a home share program launched last month by the Quality Housing Coalition, the city and the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
Victoria Morales, executive director of the coalition, said Wednesday the groupexpects to accept new tenants in September and October.
She said they’re hoping that short-term rental operators in particular may consider renting their units to asylum-seeking families.
“If folks think they might have a space, they should reach out,” Morales said. “It may not be the right fit, but they may find it is. We’re always happy to take those calls and emails.”
Staff writer Lana Cohen contributed to this report.
Asylum seekers in Portland Expo will move to hotels in Lewiston, Freeport City plans to contract with 2 hotels to house asylum seekers remaining at Portland Expo Read the full series: Long Way Home
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