May 25—The city of South Portland is telling nonprofits and government agencies on the southern border that its hotels are at capacity and that it cannot guarantee shelter to asylum seekers who may come to the city.
"Hotels that accept general assistance in South Portland, Maine are at capacity," reads a letter approved Tuesday by the South Portland City Council. "There is also no room at the shelter next to us in Portland, Maine. Due to these capacity limits, if your organization sends a family to South Portland, Maine, they are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival."
Portland sent a similar letter on May 4, about three weeks ago, saying it could no longer either guarantee shelter for families arriving in the city or promise that city staff would be able to help families find shelter. South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said his city's letter was sent to the same group of more than 30 nonprofits and government agencies that Portland notified.
"It's almost a carbon copy of the email Portland sent to various agencies earlier this month basically saying hotels accepting (general assistance) are at capacity and there's really not a lot of room here," Morelli told the council Tuesday.
He said Wednesday that a related letter was also sent to South Portland hotels, notifying them that the city is limited in how much it can pay hotels if they continue to accept unhoused clients, including not only asylum seekers but other families and individuals in need of emergency housing.
Portland is sheltering about 350 families, or about 1,200 individuals, in hotels and motels in the region, the vast majority of them asylum seekers. Those numbers don't include another 540 homeless individuals being sheltered by the city or the more than 60 families who have arrived in Portland since May 5 and had to seek shelter on their own.
Many of the hotel and motel rooms Portland is using to shelter people are in South Portland. The cost of the is being reimbursed by the state and federal government, but local officials are not sure how long they can count on the federal help. Federal reimbursement currently covers 30 percent of the cost, but the funding is tied to COVID-19 and could disappear if and when the federal government ends an emergency declaration that's currently in place.
The rate of reimbursement for the share being covered by the federal government also will drop from 100 percent to 90 percent after July 1.
The letter approved by South Portland councilors Tuesday comes as the city is working on its budget, as concerns have risen about the potential costs of Portland's change of policy for South Portland. The fear is that more people will come to South Portland seeking general assistance aid.
South Portland Finance Director Ellen Sanborn told the council Tuesday that trying to budget for potential increased general assistance costs has been difficult and "we get new information every day" about the willingness of hotels to house the homeless, the rates the hotels are demanding, the number of families in need and the reliability of the federal funding.
Based on current estimates, she told the council, South Portland's general assistance costs could range anywhere from $2.5 million to $7.9 million. The city's original budget proposal called for $1.2 million for general assistance.
Morelli recommended that the council use American Rescue Plan Act funds to offset the increase. He also recommended that the council only pay the maximum allowable cost for a hotel room allowable under general assistance, which would be $1,144 per month. That maximum allowable cost set by the state varies by region — and while municipalities may go over the maximum levels, they are not required to do so, according to Kristen Barth, the city's social services director.
"There are numerous (general assistance) maximums set by the State which include but are not limited to overall maximums that are based on household size and housing maximums that are based on number of bedrooms," Barth said in an email. "The $1,144 is a housing maximum based on a heated zero bedroom which is a hotel room."
The letter states that while hotels accepting general assistance in South Portland are full, they may have intermittent openings in the future. But the city would only be able to pay $1,144 per month.
"As a frame of reference, at current rates, this amount would not even cover eight (8) nights at the cheapest hotel in South Portland," the letter says. "Thus, these individuals/families would be on their own for the remainder of the month to find and pay for their own shelter, which seems to be an untenable situation."
The council took no formal action on the letter or budget recommendations Tuesday night, though councilors expressed support for sending the letter and for limiting the general assistance maximum at $1,144 per month. They said it was a difficult situation and expressed remorse at not being able to help more people, but also said they needed to balance that help with potential tax impacts for South Portland residents.
"Portland has been crying for help for years now with the situation over there, and no one has been listening," said Councilor Linda Cohen. "People say, 'Portland is too liberal. They got themselves into this mess.' But Portland has needed help for a long time and now it's coming our way."
If the city sticks with the maximum general assistance rate of $1,144, Cohen said, people seeking emergency housing in South Portland may look to surrounding communities.
"Maybe the services are not there but there are a lot of social programs available, especially in Cumberland County and the larger counties, to help people with transportation and other needs," Cohen said.
"It's hard times," said South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, who is originally from Somalia. "People are struggling and we have to think about those who already have homes here who might become homeless if we do certain things that we can't even do right now. We have to think about the whole community at large — and really, this is not only a local thing. It's a state thing, it's a national thing, and the state is just closing their ears."