SOUTH PORTLAND — Maria Carlota Fonseca and her family came to the U.S. from Angola in search of a better life. They picked Maine because Fonseca’s research indicated it was a safe place.

“I felt like it was the kind of state where you could raise your kids peacefully, as opposed to other big states with a lot of problems and a lot of violence,” said Fonseca, who came to Maine in early May with her husband and sons, ages 3 and 17.

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, poses for a portrait in their office on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The family is among dozens to arrive in the Portland area in the last three months seeking asylum, adding to a growing population here.

But how many are arriving now is a little less clear since the city, which faced a record number of arrivals in the spring, announced May 5 that it no longer had the capacity to guarantee shelter, or help finding it, for asylum-seeking families.

New families have continued to come, though officials said they’ve noticed fewer at the city’s Family Shelter in recent weeks. And city and community groups still struggle to meet the need for shelter and resources.

“With the numbers reduced, we’re now overwhelmed by the systems that are not there to support these families,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a nonprofit that has helped asylum seekers find shelter since the city stepped back. “Now we get to see the challenges that are there, figuring out that these families haven’t had medical checkups or prescriptions and trying to scale up social services.”


With the help of her organization and others, many who have arrived since early May have been able to find hotel rooms, including in hotels the city has been using to house families.

While it remains difficult to find hotel rooms or permanent housing, Chitam said, some rooms have opened up in those hotels as families find permanent shelter, move into the city’s family shelter or decide to leave Maine and move on to Canada.

Other hotels have opened up rooms since the cap on reimbursement rates for the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program increased in July.

July appears to have been a slow month, with just 12 families coming in as of July 18, according to tallies by the coalition and city, Chitam said. But it’s hard to know whether the numbers are truly declining.

“There are many dozens that are just arriving and settling with friends and family in the Lewiston and Brunswick area and … other towns that we are not able to document unless a need arises like food or medical (care),” Chitam said.

The Howard Johnson in South Portland is one of half a dozen hotels and motels where Chitam’s organization is helping people find housing, she said.


General Assistance or the Emergency Rental Assistance Program pays for the hotel rooms, but the coalition helps find the rooms and provides transportation and services such as food and medical care once people are placed.

Fonseca, who is planning to apply for asylum with her family, arrived in the U.S. on May 4 – the day before Portland announced its new policy – and they got to Maine a few days later. She said people at the city’s shelter told her family that an organization would pay for their hotel room.

An organization did help Fonseca, and she’s grateful for it, but doesn’t remember its name. As a new immigrant who doesn’t speak English, she said, it would be nearly impossible to navigate housing without some kind of help.

“I’m new here and starting my life from the bottom,” she said, speaking in Portuguese through an interpreter. “As an immigrant, I know everything will be hard for me to do on my own.”

Portland was scrambling at the time it dropped its guarantee to house new families.

In the first four days of May alone, 30 families arrived in need of shelter. At that time, the city was sheltering more than 1,700 people a night, including both families and homeless individuals.


As of last Thursday, that nightly number had dropped to 1,472, including 266 families, mostly asylum seekers, made up of 932 individuals.

Those numbers don’t include newly arriving families who had to find shelter without city assistance, even if they got help from an outside group.

Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services, told the City Council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee on July 12 that since the city’s policy change, 107 families consisting of 361 individuals had arrived at the family shelter and been directed to outside agencies for help finding housing.

In an interview last week, however, Dow said it’s become too difficult for the city to accurately track the number of arriving families because it’s no longer a given that they will first check in at the city shelter.

Is the number of families coming here to seek asylum actually declining?

“It’s really hard to say,” Dow said. “Perhaps they know we can’t continue to guarantee to provide emergency shelter so they are finding other resources on their own. I think that really is probably the key to it.”


She also noted that while Portland has seen a slowdown in asylum-seeking families asking for city services, officials have noticed an uptick in individual asylum seekers.

And the city is still stressed by the demand.

“A municipality of our size, with over 1,400 people in emergency shelter, I would say that’s still crisis level,” Dow said. “It’s also indicative of the need in our state and the crisis in our state around homelessness.”

It’s normal for the number of asylum seekers arriving to ebb and flow, according to some of the groups working with newcomers.

“There is definitely a slowdown in the movement of asylum seekers coming to Maine, but I hate to say that and then tomorrow you have people coming in,” said Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Prosperity Maine, a nonprofit that provides services to immigrants and refugees and aims to improve their quality of life.

Prosperity Maine is helping some asylum seekers pay for hotel rooms through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Rwaganje said, though it focuses more on getting asylum seekers into long-term housing.


“Definitely people are still coming, but it’s a couple families per week rather than 15, 20 or more at once in a week,” he said.

Michelina Manuel Gisela and her three sons arrived in the U.S. in early April and made their way to Maine, which she heard was a safe place with good resources for asylum seekers. The family was being sheltered by a local church before they found a room at the Howard Johnson about a month and a half ago, Gisela said in Lingala through an interpreter.

Gisela said she wants to apply for asylum, but she doesn’t know how and has cellphone problems. She said she’s grateful for the hotel room, but so far living there has been hard. A single mother who worked back in Angola selling food and vegetables, she said she hopes to one day get a job caring for the elderly in Maine.

“I thought I would come here and have a better life,” she said.

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