The campus of Unity Environmental University in Unity is seen from above on June 16. A plan under review by the state would have up to 600 asylum seekers provided transitional housing on the campus, but funding for the proposal is in question. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

UNITY — A plan to provide transitional housing to as many as 600 asylum seekers on a bucolic college campus in town has reached a critical juncture — finding the approximately $10 million that’s needed to make it happen.

There’s no apparent federal funding that’s imminently available and no reservoir of state money to currently draw from, according to Scott Thistle, spokesman for MaineHousing.

He noted that much work also must be done to build support for the proposal introduced last month by the Greater Portland Council of Governments to consolidate services and temporary housing for asylum seekers on the campus of Unity Environmental University, formerly known as Unity College.

“Without adequate local support and engagement it would be difficult to move this to the finish line,” Thistle said Thursday. “That part of the process hasn’t happened yet.”

Portland and surrounding towns have scrambled this year to find housing and other services for immigrants, and are on their heels as they struggle to provide basic needs, Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships for the council, has previously said.

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 submitted by the council would pay $7.8 million to the university to house asylum seekers there. Ray has said another $1.5 million would possibly be needed to provide resident supervisors, translators, legal aides (those asking for asylum have stacks of state and federal paperwork to submit) and other support staff.

The Unity campus is seen by the council, and elected officials in Portland, as a promising location because it’s largely unused, with dorm rooms available to immigrants, food services in place and a centralized location from which they can then transition to permanent housing elsewhere.

There were only about 50 students who used the campus last academic year because the university has largely moved to a remote-learning model.

Unity selectmen and other elected officials from the region met with university President Melik Peter Khoury in the last week of June and he reiterated then that the university is willing to consider the council’s proposal, but a much more comprehensive plan must first be developed.

Unity Environmental University President Melik Peter Khoury is shown outside Raymond Hall at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in 2021. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald file

“We remain willing to help, but will not put the cart before the horse,” he said in a statement at the time.

Meanwhile, the town’s three selectmen who attended that meeting had different interpretations of what Khoury told them.


Selectman Tim Parker Jr. said he heard Khoury say that the university is no longer entertaining the idea. He said Thursday that elected officials who gathered on the campus for the meeting were told “that it’s not happening.”

However, Selectman Antonio “Tony” Avila said his takeaway from the meeting was that the money wasn’t available so any plans are on hold.

“Right now we’re kind of all in limbo,” he said Thursday.

“Unfortunately we’re in the passenger seat of this car and someone else is driving it,” he continued. “We have no control on this topic.”

Parker said there was an email correspondence from Khoury telling town officials the university did not intend to move forward with the plan, but Khoury has said in recent statements that the university’s position has not changed. A copy of the email correspondence provided to the Morning Sentinel by the town on Friday appears to reflect Khoury’s position — the university is willing to consider a detailed proposal, but nothing has been presented to this point so there’s nothing to act on.

The impression left with Selectman Daniel McCormick from the meeting in late June was that the university likely won’t move forward with the transitional housing.


“People seem to think that it’s imminent and it’s not,” he said Thursday. “We’re a town of 2,200 people. We do not have the infrastructure to support that many people.”

But the southern Maine cities like Portland responding to the influx of asylum seekers are finding they don’t have enough of an infrastructure either. Ray said in June that what’s critical now is a more cohesive, integrated approach to the wave of asylees coming to Maine.

“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.”

Editor’s note: This report was updated Friday, July 14, with details from an email correspondence provided to the Morning Sentinel by the town of Unity.

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