Members of Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills are asking the federal government to extend funding that has helped the city of Portland pay for emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 emergency is far from over,” Mills, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a letter to President Biden and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell on Friday.

“Despite Maine having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, our hospitals continue to struggle under the strain of new cases. This presents significant challenges to our local governments tasked with providing essential services without contributing to the spread of COVID-19.”

The letter asks Biden to extend FEMA funding that was first made available in January 2021 to help states cover the cost of eligible COVID-19 emergency response measures. The funding had been set to expire Sept. 30, 2021, but was extended to April 1.

The FEMA funds are being used by some hospitals in Maine and to support the Maine Army National Guard’s COVID-19 response at hospitals, with testing and at vaccination clinics.

In Portland, the money also is being used to offset the costs of non-congregate emergency shelter as the city grapples with an influx of asylum seekers. Portland is currently providing shelter to about 1,200 people per night, many of them asylum seekers from countries in central and southern Africa. In addition to its two shelters, the city has been using hotels in surrounding municipalities.


In December alone, the city spent $2.5 million on hotel costs, Director of Finance Brendan O’Connell told the City Council last month. Currently, the state reimburses 70 percent of emergency housing costs and the federal funds pay for the remaining 30 percent. At last month’s meeting, however, O’Connell said that if the federal funding goes away in April and expenses stay the same, the city would be looking at a $9 million bill – or a 4.8 percent increase in the tax rate.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said that while that number is just an estimate, if the federal funding is not extended it is likely there will be significant budget ramifications for the city.

“It feels really gratifying to know our delegation and our governor are aware of the situation and they’re looking for ways to help,” Snyder said. “That continued FEMA funding is really important to the city.”

The request to extend the funding is the latest effort from members of Maine’s delegation to help Portland respond to the number of asylum seekers coming to the city. Earlier in the week, Collins, a Republican, introduced legislation with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to shorten the waiting period before asylum seekers are eligible to apply for work permits. King, an independent, is a co-sponsor on the bill.

Pingree, D-1st District, introduced a similar bill in the House last week. Both proposals would shorten the waiting period to apply for work authorization to 30 days rather than the current 150 days after an application for asylum is submitted.

Comments are not available on this story.