The Portland Expo, which has been set up as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers, is now full. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The city of Portland is telling asylum-seeking families that it can’t guarantee them a place to sleep after an emergency shelter at the Expo reached capacity this week and other city shelters remain full.

The Expo opened on April 10 as temporary housing. About 270 people were expected to stay on the first night, though officials said they expected it to quickly reach its full capacity of 300, and that’s exactly what happened.

“We are seeing unprecedented numbers in emergency shelters and unsheltered homelessness in our city and our state,” said Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services, on Friday.

The city is again asking state and federal agencies to help.

Portland has seen more than 1,100 asylum seekers arrive since Jan. 1, and the city is currently housing about 1,140 people on a nightly basis using its two permanent shelters, the temporary shelter at the Expo and hotels.

The Expo reached capacity Monday, Dow said, with the arrival of a new family of three. She said all new families – including five that arrived Wednesday – are being told that the city can still help them through General Assistance if they find housing on their own, but cannot guarantee them a place to stay.


The same message is being given to families that are not asylum seekers, though the vast majority being sheltered by the city, and everyone at the Expo, are asylum seekers.

And Portland has also been telling the same thing to homeless individuals because the new Homeless Services Center that opened last month is also full.

“As far as emergency shelter goes, we don’t have the space or the capacity right now,” Dow said.

The city is no longer using overflow space in the multi-purpose room at the Family Shelter, she said, because all resources like staff and food are being directed to the Expo.

People have donated around $40,000 to support operations at the Expo and the asylum seekers staying there. More than 230 people have signed up to volunteer, though some are still completing background checks. And city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said there are still lots of open shifts left to fill.

Linda Momborquette, a Portland health and human services employee, puts a sheet over a cot inside the Portland Expo in early April before it opened as a temporary shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Overall, Dow said, the temporary shelter, which is slated to stay open through the summer, is running smoothly, but she worries about the strain not only on the city but on community groups that are helping.


“Our systems in the greater Portland area are stretched really thin right now,” Dow said. “I know our medical systems and hospitals are feeling strained. Our food systems are strained trying to provide meals to a large number of people. Our social services partners are all strained. It’s really gotten to a point where everyone is being pulled in so many directions.”

She shared her concerns about capacity with state and community partners on Monday, and with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the White House.

The city sent a similar message to the southern border last spring, saying it could no longer guarantee shelter, though it’s hard to say whether the messaging affected the number of people arriving.

Dow said Friday that she simply wants to ensure people are informed about the conditions. “I don’t want anyone arriving thinking they will get one thing and then that’s not available to them,” she said.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins wrote to officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking them to verify destination addresses for asylum seekers to ensure municipalities like Portland are not stretched beyond capacity.

Collins also asked the department to answer questions about the flow of asylum seekers into the country and how the federal agency responds to information it receives about the final destinations provided by asylum seekers. A spokesperson for Collins said Friday she has yet to receive a response, despite requesting that the department answer her questions by March 24.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection screens and vets all migrants at the U.S. border, and those who are allowed into the country must provide a destination address. CBP is required to make every effort to confirm that the address provided is valid.

A spokesperson Friday did not directly say whether the department has responded to Collins. “DHS responds to Congressional correspondence directly via official channels, and the Department will continue to respond appropriately to Congressional oversight,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Portland is also seeing high levels of homelessness and people living in camps, like the dozens of tents that have lined the Bayside Trail in recent weeks.

The city has met with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is also working with local groups to try to get those people off the streets, Dow said.

The City Council is expected to hold an executive session Tuesday on emergency housing plans. The agenda for the meeting says the session is being called “to discuss the use of property in Portland for temporary shelter and consult with corporation counsel regarding the council’s associated legal rights and duties.”

In response to questions about the need for the meeting and what will be discussed, Grondin, the city’s spokesperson, said she could not comment, citing the executive session.

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