The Mills administration plans to open a temporary emergency shelter in Portland for as many as 280 homeless adults and is renovating housing units in three cities to accommodate as many as 140 families seeking asylum, an adviser to the governor said Wednesday.

Senior Housing Adviser Greg Payne said he could not disclose the precise location of the shelter site or the housing units being renovated, because of ongoing negotiations on leases and other agreements. But he said the shelter site was off-peninsula in Portland and the housing units were being prepared in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick. The state would cover the rent for up to two years, he said.

Senior Housing Adviser Greg Payne Derek Davis, file/Staff Photographer

Payne detailed the efforts a day after a Portland city councilor and a state representative criticized the state’s response to what has been described as a growing humanitarian crisis of families, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, coming to Portland to seek asylum amid a severe housing shortage – a situation that has forced city officials to rely on hundreds of hotel rooms in several communities.

“These folks have been through a lot,” Payne said of asylum seekers, who are prohibited from working for at least a year after filing their asylum applications. “They are strong and talented and resilient and an important part of Maine’s future. And the state is very actively involved on a daily basis in efforts to help with this issue.”

The moves are designed to reduce the reliance on hotels, which have been paid for with state and federal funding during the pandemic. Officials say the federal government has agreed to continue funding 90 percent of hotel costs for three months beginning in July, but funding beyond that is uncertain, creating concern for the city as it prepares a budget for the new fiscal year.

Gov. Janet Mills and her administration have been facing growing public pressure and criticism about the state’s role in helping municipalities shelter and provide services to about 350 families – roughly 1,200 people – seeking asylum. The city is sheltering another 500 or so single adults experiencing homelessness.


Portland City Councilor April Fournier wrote in an Op-Ed Tuesday that Mills has “largely ignored” the issue, and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, called the lack of a state-coordinated effort to provide on-the-ground services “absolutely abysmal” and “horrific.”


Fournier stood by her comments on Wednesday, saying that the city has been asking for help since October and that the state’s effort, while appreciated, “still feels late and not enough.” She cited her experience serving on the city’s health and human services and legislative and nominations committees.

“What I’ve heard consistently in HHS meetings, in L&N meetings and council meetings from city staff, state delegation and social services agencies is they feel unheard,” Fournier said in a text in response to an interview request.

Fournier also cited her previous experience working at MaineHealth to provide services – setting up health homes, transportation, culturally appropriate food, clothing and connecting people with social services – on a weekly basis to asylum seekers staying in hotels. She said more coordination, preferably by the state, of the ground-level service providers is needed.

“This shouldn’t be the responsibility of the municipality and it continues to be frustrating that the state is not coordinating this effort,” said Fournier, who no longer works with the organizations. “We’ve tried as a handful of cities partnering with dozens of social services agencies to get it done, we can’t, we need more and have said that for a while.”


Last week, a group of 79 nonprofits sent a letter to the governor urging greater coordination at the state level, including establishing a new state office to oversee the resettlement of asylum seekers and other underserved populations, and providing human and financial resources for the city of Portland. A spokesperson for Mills said the governor had received the letter and would consider the group’s recommendations.

A woman who arrived in Portland at the family shelter with her son sits at a table in the overflow room where she spent the night in November. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland sent a letter to federal officials and nonprofits along the southern border on May 4, saying the city could not guarantee shelter to asylum seekers. South Portland followed suit on Wednesday.

Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said his staff, along with the state and local officials, has been working hard in recent weeks to finalize plans for a shelter and housing before making them public.


“We’ve been working for a number of weeks, if not the last few months, on a some specific proposals,” Brennan said. “Things are moving in a good direction and when it’s time to get to that stage of announcement we will be there. But certainly a lot of work has been going on.”

Payne said the state has been actively working with officials in Portland, Bangor and other communities to meet the needs of asylum seekers and others who are homeless using a combination of $22 million in funding from the state’s supplemental budget as well as federal money from the American Rescue Place Act.


Payne said the state contracted with a real estate broker to find a location for a temporary emergency shelter in Portland for 280 individuals who are expected to lose their hotel rooms in the coming weeks. That was done after the city identified a temporary shelter as a top priority to state officials, he said.

Payne said the city was close to finalizing a lease agreement, which he wants to sign before making the location public or providing any details about the site. The project would still need planning approvals from the city, but he hopes it could open in June. The monthly lease and set-up costs would be funded by the state, but the shelter would be operated by the city, and is intended to be open until the city completes its new homeless services center in Riverside, he said, adding that meals would be delivered onsite at the temporary shelter.

“It was very difficult to find a landlord to talk to us about this use,” he said. “This is the only site at this point.”

City officials did not respond to questions about what sort of approvals the temporary shelter would need and how long it might take.

The state also is creating or renovating housing units for between 130 and 140 families seeking asylum in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick, Payne said. These also would effectively be an alternative to the continued use of hotel rooms and are being created in existing structures in those communities, although he would not provide details or specific locations.

The state would pay the rents for up to two years, which he said should give the families enough time to file their asylum claims and receive work authorization from the federal government and become more self-sufficient.



Buildout costs for the housing units are being covered by ARPA funding, while the rental payments would come from the $22 million state budget allocation. He said some units could be ready by this fall, although all of the units, which range from efficiencies to four-bedroom apartments, won’t likely be finished until March.

Additionally, Payne said MaineHousing has awarded $3 million in contracts to local groups to help individuals and families in hotels and other emergency shelters to access permanent housing and services.

According to MaineHousing, 10 organizations are receiving funding, with the top three recipients being Penquis Community Action Agency ($740,620), Immigrant Resource Center of Maine ($609,000) and Prosperity Maine ($515,000). Housing authorities in South Portland and Lewiston received $140,000 and $151,000, respectively, while Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness received about $140,000.

And the Department of Health and Human Services is using $750,000 in funding included in the state budget to add caseworkers.

The state has also found another 100 hotel rooms in Saco as emergency shelter, which Payne said would be funded entirely by the state.

“The families we are talking about are strong and talented and want to work. And we need workers,” Payne said. “We see these families as an important part of Maine’s future. And we are absolutely committed to working with local governments and local partners and our federal delegation to help make Maine a better place by welcoming these families into our state.”

Correction: This story was updated at 8:42 a.m. on May 26, 2022 to clarify that the state’s proposed renovated housing will accommodate families. 

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