Private citizens and foundations have contributed roughly $800,000 over the last month to help care for more than 250 African migrants who are being temporarily housed in a basketball gymnasium in Portland, according to city officials.

Later this month, the City Council will decide how best to use that money, plus an additional $200,000 in taxpayer funds already appropriated to the Portland Community Support Fund, which provides assistance to asylum seekers who are ineligible for state assistance.

The city staff is recommending that some of the donations be used to offset the unanticipated costs of running the new emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, although some immigrant advocates warn that would be contrary to the intent of donors, who want the money to go directly to the asylum seekers.

A decision may need to be made before local officials know what help – if any – will come from the state. And it comes at a time when many people are wondering what’s next for the roughly 70 families currently at the temporary shelter.

A city spokeswoman said officials have an Aug. 7 deadline to move everybody out of the Portland Expo, which was quickly turned into a shelter to handle the influx. The city has contractual obligations to make upgrades before turning the facility over to the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team.

The families at the Expo – primarily African migrants from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – crossed the southern U.S. border to seek safety from violence and persecution at home. Many families traveled from Africa to South America and then embarked on a long, dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S.

Some of the migrants who arrived by bus in Portland said they asked to come to the city after hearing about its immigrant community and the way it has welcomed and supported asylum seekers.

Federal law prohibits asylum seekers from working until at least six months after they have filed their application. And Maine – Portland in particular – is one of the few places in the U.S. that will provide public assistance until the families are able to work.

Martha Stein, who runs Hope Acts, a nonprofit that provides housing and services to asylum seekers in Parkside, has been warning city officials not to use any of the money to pay for staff expenses.

“I think they need to look at it from a lot of different angles and figure out how they can use the money as needed, but also recognizing the emotions which caused people to get out their checkbooks and write checks,” Stein said. “I’m asking that they be thoughtful about what they do because it could turn into a really ugly situation for the city.”

So far, the city has not been able to provide any information about the costs associated with the shelter, which is supported by a robust volunteer effort in addition to city staff members who have been diverted from other duties.

Food is being provided on-site by the nonprofit agency Preble Street. The immigrant community is volunteering as interpreters and cooks and collecting material donations. Local hospitals and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have provided nurses and linens. And the Maine Emergency Management Agency has provided cots.

City Manager Jon Jennings and Assistant City Manager Heather Brown have said they hope to use some of donations to offset expenses at the shelter, including staff overtime. A city spokeswoman said the shelter is staffed around the clock, unlike a smaller overflow facility that the city previously operated at night only at the Salvation Army. Additional security and facilities staff members have been on-site as well.

“We have had to add staff,” said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director, referring to additional temporary housing and public assistance staff. “It’s still staying true to the mission of the people who donated.”

Claude Rwaganje, a Congolese asylee who is now executive director of the immigrant assistance nonprofit ProsperityME, said the potential use of donations for staff costs came up during a meeting of immigrant leaders and advocates he hosted this past week.

“Everybody was unanimous and said it was a bad idea for the city to use the funds donated for this cause to pay the staff,” said Rwaganje, who acknowledged the “unprecedented” situation facing the city. “They can afford to pay staff with their own money.”

Several donors interviewed by the Press Herald had mixed feelings.

The Maine Community Foundation gave $100,000 from the group’s donor-advised funds, but it did not have strong feelings about how it should be used.

“The purpose of those contributions was to support asylum seekers,” spokeswoman Andrea Nemitz said in a written statement. “The city has discretion as to how the funds are actually used in support of that purpose.”

The Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation donated $45,000 and told the city that cashing the check was an agreement to use the money “for the care of asylum seekers.” Foundation Administrator Stephanie Leonard did not return requests for interviews Thursday and Friday.

South Portland resident Sharon Howell, however, said she envisioned her $5,000 donation going toward the immediate needs of the families, such as housing, food, child care, clothing and school supplies. She understands the city has taken on extra costs, but would still like to see her donation used for that purpose.

“My great preference is that it goes towards the actual needs of the people in difficulty,” Howell said.

Portland resident Susan Crimmins said she would need additional information before offering an opinion. She would not object to a portion of her $25,000 donation going to any additional services being provided to the families, but not for staff or services that would have been provided for regular city operations.

“If it’s paying for things you would be paying for anyway – that raises the antenna,” Crimmins said.

Falmouth resident Phyllis Jalbert said she had no problem with the city using her $20,000 donation to fund shelter operations. That’s because without the shelter, the families would have no place to stay. And there aren’t exactly a lot of vacant housing units available for the families, she said.

“I don’t understand what the problem is with how the money is distributed as long as it goes to help the asylum seekers,” Jalbert said. “You need to accommodate these people as they’re coming in by the busload. (The shelter) is a steppingstone. How else would you house them at this point if not at the Expo?”

The lack of vacant housing units has prompted the Greater Portland Council of Governments to look into creating two types of programs to allow area residents to host families. The group envisions one program being run by faith communities and another run for the general public that would include an online application and background checks.

So far, only eight families have been able to find housing since June 9, Grondin said. Five families have been moved into apartments – rent-free – at Brunswick Landing.

The debate comes as migrants, advocates and city officials are becoming increasingly concerned about what sort of financial help the state is willing to provide.

In a visit to Portland last month, Gov. Janet Mills told city officials they were not alone in trying to help the migrants, who mostly arrived during the week of June 9. Her administration is considering opening up General Assistance to all asylum seekers, which would provide state funding for shelter, food, medicine and other necessities. But no formal plans have been announced.

The Maine Legislature failed to pass a bill to do exactly that – even after eliminating the $7.1 million-a-year fiscal note, which included one-time technology upgrades, by requiring the program to stay within its existing budget. It was approved by the House, 88-51, largely along party lines, but it was never taken up by the Senate before lawmakers adjourned.

Neither Mills nor Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew has accommodated repeated requests for an interview with the Press Herald.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said the council’s Finance Committee will meet on July 25 and hopefully make a recommendation to the full council for its meeting in August.

Strimling said he will push for the city to use the donations within the existing guidelines of the Community Support Fund, which has been used to pay for rent, food and medicine, among other necessities. He said that fund has never been used to pay for staffing or shelter costs.

Strimling said the costs of running the Expo as a shelter should be “easily absorbed,” given the volunteer effort. If not, he vowed to find another way to pay, noting that the city expects to receive an additional $1 million in revenue from the state.

“If there are legitimate unanticipated costs that are significant, I will work with my colleagues on the Finance Committee to find savings,” Strimling said. “And I will certainly ask Gov. Mills to assist.”


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