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New group of asylum seekers in Maine begin search for new homes

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said the word is out that Maine's largest city is a welcoming place for asylum seekers.

PORTLAND, Maine — The newest group of asylum seekers arrived in Portland Friday morning, brought by bus from the U.S. - Mexico border in Texas. The group of 28 people, from eight families, came to Maine from Central Africa by way of Mexico to San Antonio, after U.S. Customs and Border Patrol cleared them to travel. 

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings says city leaders in San Antonio told him Portland is where most of the current group of asylum seekers hope to wind up. 

Jennings says it is apparently because the word is out that “we are certainly seen as a welcoming community.”

The asylum seekers were met at the bus station by local resident John Ochiera, who says he understands what the new arrivals are going through because he was once a refugee himself. 

“Some of these guys are coming from places where they didn’t have much of a chance at all and are looking for that chance here in Maine. Everybody should be able to understand that.”

For now, the new arrivals are staying at Portland’s family shelter in the Chestnut Street complex. Jennings says the city can handle this number of asylum seekers, but if another significant group comes they will likely need to be housed at the YMCA. 

Unlike the city’s shelter, those staying at the Y have to leave during the day, which Jennings says would create a problem during the cold winter months. The large group of 450 asylum seekers that came to Portland during the summer lived at the Expo for months, but that building isn’t available now. Jennings says if there is another large influx of people it will require help from other local communities.

“If we see numbers rising to what we saw over the summer we will be in a very difficult situation from the city position and will require state and regional response,” Jennings said.

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For the time being the city will shoulder most of the costs, along with any services provided by non-profit agencies and groups. The city collected more than $900,000 in donations for asylum seekers last summer, and that money has largely not been spent. In addition, the city has received roughly $850,000 from FEMA to help with the asylum seeker cost and that money, too, is not allocated. 

City spokesperson Jess Grondin says the city is in the process of developing a plan to allow groups to apply for some of that money to cover their costs of dealing with asylum seekers.

Those asylum seekers who already have been placed in permanent housing are having basic living expenses paid for with General Assistance funds from the towns and cities in which they live. 

During the summer, the Mills administration decided to adjust state GA rules to allow asylum seekers to qualify for General Assistance. The cities and towns are to be reimbursed by the state for 70% of those costs, although Portland officials say the reimbursement payments haven’t started to arrive yet.