The city of Portland and nonprofits are scrambling to help pregnant women and new mothers who are asylum seekers find housing amid an ongoing housing shortage that’s expected to worsen as funds for a federal rent relief program run out.

Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of Health and Human Services, told councilors and state lawmakers last week that the city had at least six pregnant asylum seekers living at the Oxford Street Shelter. That number has now grown to eight, Dow told the legislative and nominating committee Tuesday.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said many of the new arrivals haven’t had adequate medical care and some don’t even know they’re pregnant. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We have space and capacity on a night-to-night basis at the Oxford Street Shelter, but we are over capacity at our family shelter,” Dow said. “So once a mother gives birth and is at the hospital, we do not have a plan for that mother and baby to be discharged.”

Those numbers don’t include others that are staying in area hotels, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. She said there are at least 15 more pregnant mothers in hotels.

“That’s 15 and counting,” Chitam said. “These are the people we know about who have reached out.”

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said there also are additional pregnant asylum-seeking women being housed by Preble Street. “The numbers are not just eight and possibly 15, the numbers are much larger because there are other women being housed at Preble Street,” Talbot Ross said.


Preble Street couldn’t say how many pregnant asylum seekers it is working with Tuesday, but Executive Director Mark Swann said in a statement that the situation is terrible for many families.

“Preble Street is currently working with several pregnant women, as well as some women with newborn babies,” Swann said. “Some are asylum seekers, others are not, but we are helping with housing, as well as connection to health care, food and nutrition.

“There is a crisis with homelessness in our community and we are working with partners, the city of Portland, and the state to find solutions. These families need housing.”

Dow said the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) and the nonprofit ProsperityME have been working with hospitals to find new mothers housing using the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but funding for it is expected to run out soon. MaineHousing, which is overseeing the program in the state, paused new applications a month ago.

“Now we are at a place where we need a plan. The hospitals are reaching out to (MIRC) and others for a discharge plan for these mothers and babies,” Dow said.

Portland has been seeing high numbers of asylum seekers and homeless individuals in need of housing for the last year.


The city is currently sheltering 124 families, or 425 individuals, at its family shelter and hotels, and another 559 homeless individuals, including both asylum seekers and non-asylum seekers. Those numbers don’t include 300 people being housed at a hotel in Saco that is being run by Catholic Charities.


Dow, in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, said the number of pregnant mothers at the Oxford Street Shelter is higher than ever before. Some come with their partner or spouse while others are single mothers. She said the issue took on new urgency about two weeks ago after one mother gave birth at a hospital and had no place to go when it was time for her to be discharged.

“We called a meeting to say, ‘How can we help this one mother and baby? How can we prevent this from happening in the future?” Dow said. She said the woman luckily was able to get a room at the Saco hotel, but it’s now full. “The Saco hotel is fantastic, but we need about three or four of them,” Dow said.

She told the committee Tuesday that the next birth expected at the shelter would be in a month or two, but that could change as the city and community partners learn of more mothers who need services.

Pregnant mothers who are asylum seekers are eligible for MaineCare, but generally aren’t covered long-term after giving birth, according to Chelsea Hoskins, the city’s resettlement coordinator. Their children are eligible for MaineCare, but other family members often rely on free coverage at local medical offices and hospitals, she said.


Chitam said many of the new arrivals haven’t had adequate medical care and some don’t even know they’re pregnant. “We’ve noticed in the hotels a lot of miscarriages,” Chitam said.

Dow told councilors and lawmakers that news shocked city staff and others when they met with Chitam last month. She said it points to a need for more state coordination of services.

“We need state-level coordination of medical care, of food, of transportation, of legal services,” she said. “All of those things are something Mufalo and I have been saying we need for a year now, and we are at a tipping point with ERA going away and these funds going away. … We really need assistance.”


Dow said she has asked the Maine CDC to help with medical needs for asylum seekers. She said the state should try to fill the hole left by the federal ERA program and encouraged other municipalities to spend more in General Assistance to help put these families in hotels.

“I know there are budgetary concerns about that, I understand that, but there are also human lives on the line,” Dow said.


She said both long-term and emergency solutions are needed.

The city is looking into potential locations for transitional housing, such as a former long-term care facility in Whitefield or unused college dorms, but those plans also would require staffing the city might not be able to provide, especially outside of Portland.

“This is a lot of patchwork,” Dow said. “That’s what we’re seeing and that’s why I keep going back to (the need for) a coordinated effort, something like an emergency operations center that could take this patchwork and make it into a beautiful quilt.”

The John T. Gorman Foundation, a private foundation focused on improving the lives of vulnerable populations such as children and seniors in Maine, has offered to help coordinate care and services for pregnant mothers experiencing homelessness, Dow said.

Talbot Ross told the committee Tuesday that lawmakers met with the Gorman Foundation about its potential to help. But she said that won’t solve a longstanding need for more state coordination.

Portland representatives have started conversations with other lawmakers about General Assistance, Talbot Ross said, and Dow’s request that they spend more. “We have area legislators who are concerned about this issue and ready to act with us,” Talbot Ross said.

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