Nearly 170 people have arrived in Portland over the last three weeks to seek asylum in the United States, filling the city’s overflow homeless shelters and spurring city councilors to schedule a meeting to discuss a response to what is becoming a recurring issue.

The new arrivals include 44 families, with pregnant women and many children who are too young for school. Most began their journeys in sub-Saharan Africa, traveled through Central America, crossed the southern U.S. border and arrived in Portland by bus, unprepared for the cold Maine winter. City officials said some have been surprised that the city is no longer running a 24-hour-a-day shelter at the Portland Expo, which was converted into an emergency shelter last summer in response to large influx of asylum seekers.

Newly arrived families are given overnight shelter only, mostly in converted gymnasiums that serve as overflow spaces for the homeless. They arrive in the evenings and leave with their belongings during the day, when they seek services – whether it’s food or medical care or a place to warm up – elsewhere in the community.

“We have a lot of people arriving in flip-flops and shorts,” said Jeff Tardif, the director of the city’s family shelter on Chestnut Street. “Some of them wonder why we can’t open the Expo, but that’s not even an option right now.”

The City Council is scheduled to meet Monday to get an update on the situation and begin discussing options in the event people continue to arrive faster than they can be housed. The workshop begins at 4 p.m. in Council Chambers.

City officials could not immediately say how their housing placement rate compares to the intake rate at the overflow shelters, although that information is expected to be presented to the council. The asylum seekers do qualify for General Assistance vouchers to pay rent. But given the scarcity of housing options in the region, the newly arrived families could remain in the overflow shelters for weeks.

It wasn’t clear how the families are connecting to services during the day, although nonprofits in Portland operate day shelters and soup kitchens. The city is not set-up to receive an influx of donations such as clothing for the families and Portland officials say that community members who want to help should donate items to community groups.

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, discourages people from donating material items such as clothing, furniture and television sets until the asylum seekers have been placed in permanent housing.

However, donations of Metro bus tickets would be welcome, Chitam said. Bus ticket donations can be made by contacting Chitam at 207-517-3404.

“Bus tickets are a big need,” she said.

People who want to help the asylum seekers also can make monetary donations to the Community Plus Fund, which can be accessed through the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition website.

It’s not unusual for asylum seekers to arrive in Portland and the city usually receives a couple of families a week, but far more than that have been arriving recently.

A city spokesperson said the city received an additional influx last week, with 80 people arriving from Dec. 5-8.

Like the migrants who flowed into the city last summer, most of the asylum seekers are fleeing violence and persecution in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many entered the United States at the southern border after making a dangerous trek through South America, Central America and Mexico.

Community leaders and asylum seekers have said that Portland is popular destination because it is known as a safe and welcoming city, with an established and growing immigrant population. Asylum seekers are free to go where they choose, but must maintain contact with immigration courts while their cases move forward. Under federal law, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for at least six months after filing an application.

Officials in San Antonio informed city officials in late November that dozens of asylum seekers were planning to board buses to come to Portland. At the time, 170 asylum seekers are believed to have been released by border agents.

The city was able to accommodate the initial arrivals in city-run shelters, but the continued flow has some officials concerned about exceeding the capacity of the overflow spaces – gymnasiums at the Salvation Army and the YMCA of Southern Maine.

“Right now my sense is everything is full,” Mayor Kate Snyder said. “I don’t get the sense there is panic. There’s an eagerness on both the staff and the council side to have that discussion.”

On Thursday afternoon, roughly 40 people, including many children, were packed into a warming center at the city’s family shelter. Many children were watching cartoons while the adults huddled in small groups. Several toddlers wandered between the black plastic chairs. One little girl slept on the floor with her head in her mother’s lap.

Many people staying in the gymnasiums at night come to the warming center, while others are “absorbed by the community” by either going to public places like the Portland Public Library or visiting people they know in Portland, Tardif said.

Most families go to the Preble Street soup kitchen for their meals. Tardif said asylum seekers get their own seating time for dinner, but eat breakfast and lunch with the hundreds of other homeless people in the area.

Meanwhile, city officials are working with regional planners to come up with a broader response to the recurring influx of asylum seekers.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said that the Metro Regional Coalition, which includes representatives from seven greater Portland communities, met this week to talk about ways to formalize a regional response to emergency displacements, whether it’s an influx of asylum seekers or from a natural disaster, such as a fire or flood.

Ray said the group is looking to build on what worked well during the response last summer and strengthen areas that need improvement, such as housing coordination and properly vetted interpreters.

“I think that was a frustration for a lot of community members,” Ray said. “A lot people wanted to help and reasonably you had to go through a background check.”

Ray said the ongoing arrivals illustrate the need to formalize a regional response, including identifying facilities in other communities that can be used as temporary shelters.

“This is clearly an issue that will not go away,” Ray said. “It seems that worldwide we have record numbers of displaced people and a certain number of them are coming to communities in Maine and we need to know how we’re going to find the resources to assist people in these difficult circumstances.”

The latest wave comes two months after the city dealt with an unprecedented and unanticipated influx of asylum seekers over the summer.The city declared an emergency and opened the Expo as a temporary shelter, which eventually processed over 450 asylum seekers.

The influx prompted an outpouring of community support through financial donations, volunteering and offers to provide transitional housing to the newly arrived. The city received nearly $1 million in private donations and is accepting applications to reimburse community groups that helped assist the families over the summer. Officials expect to make the first disbursements next month.

And the city also received $864,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the costs of operating the emergency shelter at the Expo through the end of June.

Gov. Janet Mills issued an emergency rule change to expand eligibility for General Assistance to more asylum seekers. The voucher-based safety net program funds food, shelter, medicine and other necessities, but city officials say they have not yet received any reimbursements.

The city closed the Expo in mid-August and the facility was returned to its regular use as the home court of the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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