Temporary shelter for asylum seekers closes in Maine’s largest city

Aug 16, 2023, 9:51 AM

Some of the 191 asylum seekers from African countries housed temporarily at a basketball arena boar...

Some of the 191 asylum seekers from African countries housed temporarily at a basketball arena board buses and vans after the closing of the shelter at the gymnasium on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Portland, Maine. The city set up an emergency shelter in March after a flood of asylum seekers mostly from Angola and Congo — more than 1,600 since the start of the year -- strained services in Portland, Maine's largest city. (AP Photo/David Sharp)

(AP Photo/David Sharp)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Nearly 200 asylum seekers from African countries have traded one temporary home in Maine’s largest city for another Wednesday after a basketball arena that served as a shelter closed.

About 10 buses and vans lined up outside the Portland Expo to take 191 occupants and their belongings to motels in Lewiston and Freeport. Both cities are north of Portland.

One of the newcomers blew kisses to onlookers in a show of appreciation for the city, which set up the emergency shelter in April after a flood of people arrived — more than 1,600, mostly from Angola and Congo, since the start of the year.

Communities around the country have been dealing with growing numbers of asylum seekers, and have braced for more as the Biden administration sought to put in place new restrictions after the lifting of pandemic restrictions on asylum.

In Portland, the arrival of newcomers strained city services and coincided with the end of pandemic funding in May, which had allowed many unhoused people to stay in motels. Since then, homeless tent cities have begun growing around the city.

“Our staff have been completely at capacity in terms of who they’re able to shelter and assist,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.

Grondin said she hopes asylum seekers won’t have to be housed in motels for too long as slots open up in the city’s family shelter. The motel costs are expected to be about $500,000, on top of about $540,000 spent for temporary housing at the arena. But the city won’t have to pick up the entire tab for those costs since the state will contribute, she said.

Asylum seekers first began arriving in large numbers in 2019, many arriving with harrowing tales of their escape from violence and poverty in their homelands.

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Temporary shelter for asylum seekers closes in Maine’s largest city