The campus of Unity Environmental University in Unity is seen Friday. A plan under review by the state would have up to 600 asylum seekers provided transitional housing on the campus. The university was formerly known as Unity College. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The state this week received a proposal for Unity Environmental University to be paid $7.8 million to provide transitional housing for as many as 600 asylum seekers at its landmark campus in the Waldo County town of Unity.

The proposal was submitted Tuesday by the Greater Portland Council of Governments in an effort to provide a more cohesive, integrated approach to the wave of asylum seekers coming to Maine, according to Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships for the council.

“We were asked to start looking at this by our member communities in the southern Maine region because so many municipalities have had to come up with solutions on their own,” Ray said Friday.

Portland and surrounding towns have scrambled to find housing and other services for immigrants, Ray said, and are on their heels as they struggle to provide basic needs.

“Over the last four years we have seen a continued growth in the number of people coming to Maine looking to resettle and look for a better life,” she said. “As we look at conditions around the world, we see this trend continuing.”

Just this year an estimated 1,500 asylum seekers have arrived in the greater Portland area, Ray said. But that number could be wildly inaccurate because of several factors, such as those who arrive but don’t declare themselves as needing state services, she said.


The proposal by the council was submitted to the Maine State Housing Authority and the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. The university was seen as an ideal location because it has transitioned in recent years to more distance learning and many of the facilities on its Unity campus are largely unused.

She said the intent would be to have immigrants in Unity who are single or those with children 4 and under so as not to overwhelm the regional school district, which is Regional School Unit 3.

Providing transitional housing there would ultimately be more cost-efficient than the current arrangement for asylum seekers — putting them up in disparate locations such as hotels in Saco, South Portland and elsewhere, according to the proposal.

The campus of Unity College, including the school greenhouse, in foreground, is seen in 2020. The school, now known as Unity Environmental University, is being proposed as transitional housing for asylum seekers. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

“The Unity campus can provide transitional housing for 600 individuals for less than it costs to shelter 300 people at the Saco hotel or 125 at the South Portland one,” the proposal said. “The cost savings alone are reason to explore this further.”

It notes, for instance, that the Unity option is far more affordable than housing people in South Portland, which amounts to an annual cost of more than $30 million.

It goes on to say that an annual lease of $7.8 million could provide not just housing but also meals to hundreds of people “across a 224-acre campus with amenities that far surpass what is available in the hotels.”


“In addition to having nine residential halls, all with laundry rooms, common areas, and kitchenettes, the Unity campus has athletic facilities, recreational space, and walking trails; a public library; a full-service dining hall; offices, classrooms and conference rooms; space for worship service and community gatherings.”

The university, formerly known as Unity College, on Friday forwarded a statement by its president, Dr. Melik Peter Khoury.

“I can reiterate that several advocacy groups, such as the Greater Portland Council of Governments, have reached out to us to gauge interest,” he said. “As we told them, and has been reported, Unity Environmental University is willing to help if there is a proper plan in place with the state, town and advocacy groups.”

Khoury went on to say in the statement that “it would be premature for us to discuss a plan that does not exist” and that “we have not received any sort of formal proposal.”

But Ray, with the council of governments, said she had a series of conversations with Khoury and others about the plan.

“The university is well aware of this whole proposal and helped to come up with the numbers and figures,” she said, later adding, “But nobody has actually reached out from the state to say, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”


Ray speculated that the university may consider it a formal effort once a funding plan is in place. The state now will work to cobble together money from several sources, including state coffers and federal authorities, she said.

But there would be other costs beyond the $7.8 million paid to the university. For instance, resident supervisors would be needed along with translators and legal aides (asylum seekers have stacks of state and federal paperwork to submit), Ray said. If there were, indeed, up to 600 people on the Unity campus, then those additional expenses would come to about $1.5 million.

Unity Selectman Tim Parker Jr. said the town has not been approached about the transitional housing. Unity has around 2,300 residents and adding 600 people amounts to a population increase of 26%.

The university has previously told the town that it intended to resume regular operations on the Unity campus but that no longer appears to be the case, Parker said. The university is now based at the campus it created in New Gloucester.

“They’re getting all the benefits of being a college but now they want to turn around and be a housing development,” he said.

The groups involved in the plan need to take into account local concerns, such as whether a surge of hundreds of people on the campus could be a drain on nearby public safety agencies, he said.

“This could ultimately end up being something good for this town, but nothing good comes from something that’s not organized or not carefully planned,” Parker said. “We need to be involved in the conversation.”

Greg Payne, a housing advisor with the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, said in a statement that Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is reviewing the proposal.

“We appreciate the effort by so many partners to propose options for housing and shelter in the state and expect to have discussions with the organizations about the proposal in coming weeks,” Payne said.

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