Criticism of Gov. Mills mounts in Portland over asylum seekers

·7 min read

May 25—Elected officials in Portland stepped up their criticism of Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday, one day after nearly 80 nonprofit organizations urged the Democratic governor to take a leadership role in helping to support and find housing for the hundreds of families seeking asylum that continue to arrive in the city.

The governor's office did not respond Tuesday to a request for an interview with Mills. It reiterated steps the governor has taken to increase funding for asylum seekers and homeless services and said the administration continues to consider the recommendations submitted by the nonprofits.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat and assistant House majority leader, called the state's response "abysmal" on Tuesday, saying that lawmakers have not been able to get an answer about whether funding included for homeless services in the supplemental budget could be used to provide a coordinated statewide response.

"It is absolutely abysmal," Talbot Ross told Portland city councilors Tuesday morning. "It's such a slap in the face. This is a horrific — horrific response from the state. There's no explanation for it. We can't hide from naming it. We have to name it. What a deficiency in all ways. It is quite disappointing."

City Councilor April Fournier also criticized the administration's response in an Op-Ed published Tuesday in the Press Herald.

"Portland's leadership — including my colleagues on the City Council, city staff and our representatives in Augusta and Washington — have worked tirelessly for months to ensure that these newcomers aren't forced to live on the streets, but we can't do it alone: We need the support of surrounding communities, as well as the state," Fournier said. "But the governor has largely ignored this crisis."

The criticism followed the release of a letter signed by nearly 80 nonprofit groups urging the Mills administration to coordinate a statewide response to housing and care for roughly 350 families, rather than leaving it to municipalities.

The organizations said the state is facing a humanitarian crisis with asylum-seeking families continuing to arrive in Portland weekly and the city saying this month that it could no longer guarantee housing. "A coordinated, statewide effort is necessary to meet the moment," the letter says.

The governor's office defended the administration Tuesday afternoon.

"We strongly disagree with the claim that the state has not been engaged in solving this problem," spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said in an email. "Fundamentally, the Mills administration recognizes the serious situation the city of Portland is in, which is why we have been engaged with them and others."

One Democratic legislator from Portland, former Mayor Michael Brennan, also defended the administration Tuesday, though he said more needs to be done. Brennan said the Mills administration has been working with Portland and other communities to find temporary housing and to address other concerns, such as securing federal funding to support housing for asylum seekers and connecting them with supportive services.

Though he believes the state is trying to respond, Brennan said "the fact of the matter is we're facing a crisis and there's always a gap between how quickly you respond and the immediacy of the crisis."

DESTINATION FOR REFUGEES

Portland has long been a destination for refugees and families seeking asylum, a legal status that allows noncitizens to immigrate to escape violence or persecution in their home countries. In recent years, most of the asylum seekers have come from sub-Saharan Africa through the southern U.S. border before traveling north to join a growing Maine community of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Burundi, among other countries.

Since the pandemic began, Portland has been housing asylum seekers and other homeless individuals in hotels using federal funds. However, the constant threat of losing that funding, as well as delays in receiving reimbursements and a month-to-month arrangement with local hotels as tourist season approaches, has city officials on edge as they prepare their budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The latest round of federal funds was set to expire on June 30, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to fund 90 percent of the costs in July. Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West said the city can't count on that funding through the next fiscal year, especially since it's tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's a month-to-month decision," West said during a meeting Tuesday with councilors and the city's legislative delegation. "It's difficult to budget for a fiscal year when you're waiting for a month-to-month decision."

The city notified federal agencies and nonprofit groups along the southern U.S. border on May 4 that Portland could no longer guarantee housing or services to asylum seekers who travel north to Maine. But West said people continue to come here, saying that 62 families totaling 212 individuals have arrived since the letter was sent. Nonprofits so far have been able to find shelter for many of the new arrivals within a day or so, officials said.

The city is currently providing emergency shelter to about 350 families, totaling about 1,200 people, nearly all of whom are asylum seekers. Another 500 homeless individuals also are staying in hotel rooms. And the steady influx has coincided with an acute shortage of housing.

"It's really difficult, because housing is a problem across the board for the state, especially in southern Maine," West said.

In their letter dated Friday, the nonprofit organizations listed coordinated action from the state as the highest priority. Their recommendations include immediately opening emergency sites to provide shelter, food and urgent medical care; establishing a task force to coordinate services to asylum seekers; and providing human and financial resources for the city of Portland.

They also recommend that the state seek best practices from other states that serve asylum seekers and establish a permanent state office to assist in the resettlement of asylum seekers and other underserved populations.

Brennan on Tuesday highlighted several steps the state and federal governments are taking to help, while acknowledging that more needs to be done and assistance isn't coming fast enough for those on the ground.

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

"Looking at it from a legislative perspective, we have been responsive," Brennan said.

He said the federal government's continued funding will greatly reduce the liability to the city. In a phone interview after meeting with city officials Tuesday, Brennan said he believes — but could not guarantee — that funding would continue at least until the end of the year. And if it stops then, the Legislature will return to session and can take up other solutions, he said.

Brennan also noted several budget initiatives that were approved, including $22 million to address emergency housing in the state. That funding can be used for "rental assistance or appropriate housing for those who are staying in hotels or to create additional permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities, mental health challenges, or substance use disorder," according to the budget.

Brennan also noted that the Legislature allocated an additional $10 million to address hotel costs for municipalities because federal funding was expected to run out in July. He said Portland would likely receive about $7.5 million from that. And the state budget has $500,000 to help school districts hire English language instructors and $750,000 for case management services for people experiencing homelessness, he said.

Additionally, he noted that MaineHousing was hiring three housing navigators to help people staying in hotels find more permanent housing and connect them to services. And state officials had identified two possible sites, including one in Portland, that could possibly be used as temporary housing on an ongoing basis.

Brennan said the state also is considering using housing vouchers to help pay for permanent housing for asylum seekers. Such a voucher would make it easier for people to move from one community to another, he said, because the existing General Assistance program is administered by municipalities, which at times have different interpretations of their responsibilities.