Asylum seekers wait inside Sanford City Hall on Monday. The city has said that it can’t handle the number of asylum seekers looking for General Assistance aid, and many are already receiving help from other cities. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sanford’s struggle to address the General Assistance requests of a recent large influx of asylum seekers has highlighted the lack of a statewide system that allows municipalities to see who already is receiving benefits – and where.

In the past week and a half, more than 100 asylum seekers have qualified for General Assistance in Sanford, where officials say city staff is overwhelmed by having to cross-check General Assistance lists from other communities to make sure no one is receiving double benefits.

“We are doing everything within our capacity to meet the letter of the law,” City Manager Steven Buck said Tuesday.

But cross-referencing names has been made more difficult, Buck said, because Maine does not have a statewide database that would allow municipalities to easily see who is receiving benefits in other communities. That means General Assistance directors have to call other municipalities to request a list of people receiving assistance there to check against their own lists.

“Our GA directors have to communicate community by community to do the cross-checks,” he said.

The issue became apparent when some asylum-seeking families staying in overflowing emergency shelters elsewhere apparently seized upon misinformation and promises that they would find more help in Sanford, and began arriving in the city last week.


“If you hear of a space where they are giving bread and your child or your family is starving, you’re going to go look for that opportunity as well,” Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said at a Sanford City Council meeting Tuesday night.

The city had already far exceeded its GA budget for the year, long before the asylum seekers arrived. But Sanford also has turned away many others – the city has not released exact numbers – who did not qualify for assistance because they already had signed up in another community.

Even more people could be disqualified, including some who are already staying in Sanford hotels, Buck said.

Most municipalities already use the same program and it would be an easy fix to allow communities to share that information in a database, Buck said.

Portland’s General Assistance office doesn’t regularly get lists from other municipalities, but will check if there is reason to believe that someone has received assistance somewhere else.

“Unfortunately a statewide database doesn’t exist for General Assistance so municipalities must check to confirm if applicants have received assistance,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.


Christopher Pupke, the social services director in South Portland, said the city asks applicants if they have ever applied for General Assistance in another municipality. If he needs to check, Pupke said he either emails the state General Assistance desk or checks directly with the other municipality.

Chitam said the situation in Sanford illustrates why the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which is helping respond to the unprecedented demand for assistance, has been advocating for statewide coordination. A central hub for tracking phone numbers, whereabouts and support systems available for newly arrived asylum seekers would increase the efficacy and efficiency for both private and municipal social services, the coalition said.

Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees General Assistance, did not directly answer a question about a statewide database, only saying that the state provides General Assistance reimbursement as directed under state law, as well as guidance regarding the General Assistance statute, rules and compliance.

Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice in Augusta, said it is important for people to remember that anyone who needs help with housing costs, food or medical services has the right to apply for General Assistance.

Merrill isn’t aware of a statewide database that could be used to flag people trying to get General Assistance benefits from more than one municipality, saying that if there is a question or dispute about an applicant it falls to the city or town to contact another municipality or the DHHS.



Maine towns and cities are required by state law to administer General Assistance, which provides immediate money to people who are unable to provide basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and clothing. That help is limited – applicants have to reapply every 30 days – and is given in the form of vouchers that can be redeemed at hotels and certain stores.

In 2015, the Legislature amended the General Assistance statute to clarify that people would be eligible for the program if they are “lawfully present in the United States” or “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.” That means asylum seekers are eligible to receive benefits.

The asylum seekers who arrived in Sanford last week and received GA benefits there all presented government documents that showed they’ve been through customs, are documented, have filed for asylum and are awaiting a court date and hearing, Buck said. They were issued vouchers for housing, food and other basic necessities.

But by this week, many of the asylum seekers showing up at City Hall had chosen to leave their housing in other communities and accepted rides to Sanford, Buck said. When staff asked asylum seekers who filled council chambers on Monday asked if they had already applied for General Assistance elsewhere, everyone raised their hand. They were told they did not qualify for General Assistance in Sanford and must go back to the original community where they applied for benefits.

“If you leave housing options voluntarily, you are disqualified,” Buck said.

Those who did qualify must now go back to the General Assistance office weekly to apply for benefits and receive their vouchers. Still, there is no guarantee that housing will continue to be available because hotels do not have to continue accepting vouchers. And after 30 to 40 days, they will stop receiving vouchers altogether when their benefits expire.


“What then? That’s the big question that we’re trying to manage at this point in time,” Buck said.

Buck said it has become clearer this week why and how many of the asylum seekers ended up in Sanford, nearly an hour outside of Portland. Some of the earliest General Assistance applicants came to Sanford directly from the Portland International Jetport. The majority of the asylum seekers, however, were “actively recruited” at the Portland Expo and other shelters by individuals or groups that somehow convinced them to leave and be taken to Sanford.

Others left shelters and were housed temporarily by faith-based or charitable organizations, Buck said. When resources run low, “they are being turned out to the city to provide them assistance,” he said.

The city has not released the names of any of the individuals or organizations it suspects of transporting people. Buck said he continues to look into the information he received as the city tries to understand why and how this is happening and if there is a way to stop it.


Maine lawmakers are considering several possible changes to the General Assistance program as homelessness and the housing crisis strain its ability to serve people in need.


At municipal leaders’ urging, the Legislature this year is considering bills that would increase the state’s cost reimbursement from 70% to 90%. Other bills being considered would establish residency requirements and limit benefits.

Lewiston Mayor Carol Sheline told lawmakers last week that increasing the reimbursement rate would alleviate pressure on municipal budgets and continue to provide critical assistance.

“As you are well aware, General Assistance provides a lifeline for many who find themselves in dire financial situations,” said Sheline, who testified in support of L.D. 1664 on behalf of the Maine Mayors’ Coalition, a group of mayors from the state’s 10 largest communities.

Portland has spent $26.5 million on General Assistance this fiscal year and is currently assisting 3,800 people, but the need is not limited to the city, Maine Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said last week in support of the L.D. 1664, which she is co-sponsoring.

Before the asylum seekers arrived, Sanford already had spent nearly $484,000 this fiscal year on General Assistance, exceeding its budget by $329,000. It has received more than $247,000 in state reimbursements, but more is needed, Buck said.

“The sharp increase in General Assistance costs is a symptom of other problems, including the lack of housing for so many Maine people,” Talbot Ross said. “While we are taking meaningful steps in the Legislature to address these issues, I think the financial consequences, as reflected in rising GA costs, underscores the urgency with which we must address this.”

The Legislature also is considering bills that would establish a residency requirement for people to access General Assistance and set a nine-month limit on benefits for “able-bodied” adults without dependents. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, the bill’s sponsor, said he wants to ensure that benefits are prioritized for residents who have paid into the system and fallen on hard times.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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