Wendy Chapkis holds a sign welcoming asylum seekers as they arrive for a Fourth of July picnic at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council voted unanimously Monday to donate $10,000 to two social service agencies to support the recent influx of asylum-seekers in Portland.

More than 300 asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola have arrived in Portland over the last few weeks, and more than 250 are still housed temporarily at the Portland Expo sports arena.

In response, a metro-regional coalition of town representatives has formed through the 26-member Greater Portland Council of Governments to help the asylum-seekers. Town Manager Matt Sturgis and Councilor Jeremy Gabrielson represent Cape Elizabeth on the coalition.

The major identified need is housing, Sturgis said during the July 8 council meeting. “Thank you to (the University of Southern Maine) and Bowdoin College to provide a bridge of housing. … That has helped somewhat, but there are still a number of families that are in need for housing.”

GPCOG is working to find host families for asylum-seekers, and officials from the metro-regional coalition have been reaching out to landlords to find vacancies that might host families.

The town’s financial contribution will go to Opportunity Alliance, the Community Action agency for Cumberland County, and Preble Street, a Portland-based hub that serves the homeless.

“We don’t have places to put people (in Cape) other than host families, and I think that activity is just starting to gain traction,” council Chairman James Garvin said.

According to Sturgis, South Portland donated $40,000 to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Portland Metro has provided free and discounted transit to families, and the Amtrak Downeaster may provide lower fares for families traveling to Boston for paperwork.

Councilor Christopher Straw said he does not support waiving fees for anyone.

“You are in effect picking winners and losers, which, from my perspective, the government should never be involved in doing,” Straw said.

Councilor Valerie Randall said making a large donation as a town is an important gesture and suggested the Thomas Jordan Trust might be a viable fund to financially support Cape host families.

Councilor Caitlin Jordan said she was concerned about draining the Jordan fund too quickly if it is relied on as a financial source.

“There’s not one solution, one answer,” Sturgis said. “There’s multiple little answers that might help us move along.”

Councilors discussed how much money to donate, whom to donate to, and if a financial contribution is the most effective way to be helpful as a town.

“I have felt for many, many, many years that the city of Portland has beared the brunt for social services for vulnerable populations,” Councilor Penelope Jordan said. “I think what the asylum-seekers have done for communities around Portland is raise awareness of what that city does every single day.”

She suggested adopting a longer-term perspective that “Cape Elizabeth is going to step up and say that we will stand with Portland,” not just for this influx of asylum-seekers, but also for other marginalized populations.

“Asylum-seekers have raised that flag and I think we need that discussion,” Jordan said.

Straw agreed that the population at-large that includes asylum-seekers should be helped, rather than focusing exclusively on the newcomers.

“There’s a housing crisis and there are a lot of people suffering from that … it’s a larger issue,” he said. “I’d rather focus it by diverting resources to an entity that helps out everyone uniformly.”

The town has funds allocated in its municipal budget for donations to Opportunity Alliance, which includes Preble Street. In 2017, the town donated more than $1,300; it has budgeted $1,400 for 2020. Straw pointed out that in a three-year period, the budget increased by only $74, which Sturgis explained accounts for a standard 2% increase each year.

The council unanimously voted to donate $10,000 from the unassigned fund balance, split equally between Opportunity Alliance and Preble Street.

Straw framed the donation with the perspective that the town “should have been giving more over the last couple of years” to assess a growing housing crisis in the greater Portland area.

“We’re giving (financial assistance) to an entity that we historically have supported, as an attempt to shoulder our share of the burden,” he said.

Moving forward, Sturgis said he will pursue non-monetary avenues through which the town and its residents can provide assistance, such as serving as a host family and donating furniture.

Councilors said they also hope to revisit discussions of Cape Elizabeth’s long-term commitment to social services.

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