PORTLAND — When he moved from Burundi in 2010, Dieudonne Nahigombeye’s first home in the United States was Portland’s homeless shelter on Oxford Street.

He arrived straight from a refugee camp in one of the poorest countries in the world, with no money, no job and no knowledge of English.

After his years in the camp, the sleeping arrangements at Oxford Street — where dozens of men and women sleep inches away from each other on thin plastic mats — were not unfamiliar to him.

“It is not a good place,” Nahigombeye said Friday.

Nahigombeye, 29, was part of a surge of people from war-torn countries who have sought refuge in the city’s six private and public shelters.

Although Nahigombeye now has his own apartment, has been granted political asylum and speaks fluent English, 45 people with similar stories are sleeping in the shelters this winter.

“Folks seeking asylum is an emerging trend,” said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, record numbers of people are showing up at Portland’s shelters. The city and private charitable organizations are scrambling every night to find places for them to sleep.

There are 322 designated spots across the city; more than 350 people are seeking refuge at night this winter.

“It has spiked in the past year. We are seeing historic highs in the number of people seeking services,” said John Bradley, associate director at Preble Street, a private, nonprofit organization that operates soup kitchens, food pantries and overnight shelters.

Portland has had a continuing influx of people seeking asylum because of persecution, or fear of persecution, based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in social groups. The majority are from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit in Portland that provides legal assistance to low-income residents, says its applicants for political asylum increased from 100 in 2009 to about 400 in 2010. The agency stopped accepting new cases in early 2010 because it couldn’t handle any more.

It’s not clear why more people are coming to Portland seeking political asylum, although some observers with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project speculate that Portland’s immigrant community is simply getting more visibility and attracting more people as it grows and gets more diverse.

Every night this winter, Preble Street has opened its day room to about 60 sleepers when the 154 spots at the city-run Oxford Street shelter for men and women and 77 spots at the emergency family shelter fill up.

Gardner said the city’s homeless population would be even greater if the city had not found permanent housing for 492 men and women in the last year, a 17 percent increase in permanent housing placements from the year before.

The city spends about $1.7 million a year to operate its two shelters from state and local tax dollars and the Maine Housing Authority.

Gardner said homeless shelter operators are nervous over possible cuts in state funding as lawmakers look for ways to plug a $221 million state budget shortfall.

“We are concerned,” said Gardner.

The city’s shelters open their doors every night at 7:30 p.m. to a line of people. When the Oxford street shelter fills up, people are sent to Preble Street, where the overflow sleeps in the facility’s day room.

“We cross our fingers that we don’t hit the maximum. We are getting very close and it is scary,” said Bradley.

Nevertheless, homeless shelter officials vow they will not turn anyone away.

James King, 21, Brunswick has been living at the city’s shelters on and off for several years. King has no job and nowhere else to stay. He carries all of his possessions around in a backpack. He hopes to return to his hometown of Brunswick and get a job as a bank teller at Norway Bank. But until that happens, he said he is stuck at the shelter.

King said sleeping in a shelter is difficult. People roll into him when he is sleeping so he tries to bed down near the friends he has made.

“You have people who don’t bathe. There is a lot of drama,” said King.

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