City officials and immigrant community leaders are stepping up efforts to convince dozens of migrant families staying in a temporary shelter to accept housing offers in communities outside of Portland.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said staff and immigrant leaders are trying to clear up confusion that may have caused some families to turn down 20 housing offers, including 11 in Ellsworth. Families are being told that the city has a policy that anyone who refuses to accept adequate housing offers can be kicked out of the shelter for 90 days, she said.

And anyone remaining at the shelter when it’s shut down on Aug. 15 could be removed to the original overflow shelter at the Salvation Army, which unlike the temporary facility at the Portland Expo, is not open during the day, uses floor mats instead of cots and lacks support such as on-site food, medical care and other services.

“We plan to make a general announcement today and then follow up with individual families,” Grondin said Wednesday.

The effort comes as Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling pushed back against accusations several city councilors made during a contentious meeting Tuesday night that he misled some migrant families at the shelter by suggesting that they could turn down housing offers and not get kicked out of the shelter – a message that contradicts existing policy. Strimling firmly denies contributing to any confusion.

It also comes as the Greater Portland Council of Governments is rolling out a new program, in partnership with area nonprofits, in which people can volunteer to host a family for a month or two. So far, 30 families have been vetted, approved and could begin receiving migrant families within days.

The Portland Expo was converted into a temporary shelter last month to accommodate the sudden and unexpected arrival of more than 300 people, largely from the African nations of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, city officials say they need to close the shelter by Aug. 15 so it can return to its intended use as a sports arena.

That deadline has increased the urgency to find housing for the nearly 80 families, totaling over 200 people, who remain in the Expo. But city officials said Tuesday that some families have turned down housing offers in communities like Brunswick, Bath, Ellsworth and Rangeley.

Mayor Ethan Strimling walks through the city’s temporary shelter at the Portland Expo on Wednesday. He denies contributing to any confusion that led asylum seekers to turn down housing outside the city. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Portland officials have said they are looking for available housing in Portland and in communities around the state because of a tight housing supply in the city and the limited time they have to clear out of the Expo.

Historically, the city has moved homeless families into other communities based on the options that are available. It also has told families in the past that they could no longer stay in a city shelter if they reject suitable housing found for them by city staff, according to the city’s spokeswoman.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the nonprofit Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which has been working with the migrant families, said that some families don’t want to leave Portland because there is an established immigrant community and a variety of resources for immigrants here. They are also concerned about transportation, since immigration appointments occur in the Portland area.

However, once she provides information about the other communities and assures them that nonprofits, volunteers and other service providers will continue to support them, they seem to be more comfortable with accepting housing offers.

“Wherever housing is found, we are going to build a community of support,” Chitam said. “You have to start from somewhere.”

There still seemed to be some confusion at the Expo on Wednesday afternoon.

Adison Songo, 27, of Angola rests with his son Brian, 1, at the city’s shelter at the Portland Expo on Wednesday. The city plans to shut down the shelter by Aug. 15, and anyone who remains could be moved to the overflow shelter at the Salvation Army, which is not open during the day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Olga Nzinga, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said through an interpreter that her family was offered an apartment in Lewiston earlier in the day. She said her husband was still trying to decide whether to move her and their three young children, including a 2-month-old infant, into the unit.

Nzinga said she felt no pressure to accept the unit. She believes that if her family turns it down, the city would provide additional options, rather than be kicked out of the shelter.

Adilson Songo, however, appeared to understand the city’s position. While he’d rather stay in Portland, Songo said he felt like he had no other choice than to accept housing in Brunswick, even though he knows little about the area. He was worried about being able to get to Portland for his immigration check-ins.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Songo, an Angolan, was awaiting word about when he, his wife and two children, ages 1 and 16, would be moving. He said he was “a little nervous because they didn’t want something like that.”

Meanwhile, the Greater Portland Council of Governments is rolling out a new host home program.

Chris Hall, the council’s general counsel and director of regional initiatives, said that 130 people inquired about hosting a family, 30 of whom have been vetted by the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE. Those families are now meeting with immigrant leaders. Once they sign off, they will be allowed to welcome a migrant family.

“If this all proceeds as planned, then I think we’re going to start seeing people have the opportunity to move into host homes very shortly – within the next few days, or early next week,” Hall said.

 

Families are expecting to host migrants for one to two months, he said. During that time, the city will continue to look for permanent housing, and other nonprofits will help provide transportation, cultural sensitivity training, mediation and long-term plans for housing support.

“It’s just been amazing,” Hall said.

Meanwhile, the political battle that flared during the council meeting Tuesday night continued into a second day.

Strimling called a news conference to pushback against accusations that he had contributed to the confusion at the Expo. He said that confusion existed before he met with concerned families at the Expo on July 15. City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email Wednesday that city staff had come to him with concerns about comments the mayor made to migrants on July 13 and 14.

Strimling said that until last week he wasn’t aware of the city’s policy of kicking people out of the shelter if they refuse housing. He repeated comments he made during the meeting Tuesday night that he told families that in the United States they would never be forced to live where they didn’t want to and they had a right to question what was being offered.

Strimling said he also encouraged them to accept the housing that was being offered, because the alternative was staying in the shelter or possibly ending up homeless.

“I said, ‘You’re going to be able to have a conversation about what is going on in terms of where you’re going to be placed and you should be pushing back on that,” Strimling said. “You should be trying to find a way to make sure you understand what the house is. I don’t want you to be homeless. I don’t want you to be kicked out.’ ”

He later clarified that “push back” meant to engage and ask questions to become comfortable with the placement. And he did not directly answer questions about a city staffer’s allegations that Strimling told the migrant families that they would not be kicked out of the Expo if they refused housing as required by city policy.

The city staffer, who works to house families and also interpreted Strimling’s conversation with the families, reported the mayor’s conversation with migrants to his boss.

Housing Counselor Marcel Selemani, who speaks Lingala and translated the mayor’s discussion, said a family asked if they would be kicked out of the Expo if they refused housing and Strimling asked where that message came from. Selemani said he was telling families that at the direction of the Jeff Tardif, the family shelter director.

“After that the mayor said no one will be asked to leave and that no one should be forced to live in a place he does not want and people are free here in United States to choose where they want to live,” Selemani said in an email to his bosses. “And also he did explain to them that housing in Portland is difficult and expensive that … they could be move(d) out for a while from Portland but they could come back in Portland at a later stage.”

At the news conference Wednesday, Strimling also accused the council of “sowing division” and using the families at the Expo as “political pawns.” He expressed disappointment that immigrant leaders were not allowed to speak at the meeting.

“Last night, after I gave a speech talking about how remarkable it was that our state had come together – from our governor down to folks who gave a dollar – the council chose division and tried to create a split,” he said. “These families should not be political pawns.”

He added, “Last night the council chose, and in particular those who are running against me for mayor and those who were running or supporting them, to use (the migrants) as political pawns that was unfortunate,” he said.

Strimling was referring to City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who is running for mayor, and Councilors Belinda Ray and Justin Costa, who withdrew from the race and expressed support for Thibodeau.

Thibodeau said he was “laser-focused” on making sure that the city is sending a consistent message to the migrant families about accepting the housing that is being offered.

“I’ll leave the politics of this to Ethan – that seems to be where he wants to go with that,” Thibodeau said. “The sole purpose of that meeting was the confusion that was being caused by the mixed messaging that contradicts our city staff. That is not the way to prevent the unthinkable and that’s homelessness.”

He added: “What the council unanimously said last night is our sole focus is getting our newest neighbors into housing. And to avoid confusion in the future we need to ensure that our message is one and the same.”

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