Facing an impending humanitarian crisis, Portland Family Shelters Director Mike Guthrie has a simple message to anyone who will listen, “We need help!”
Guthrie, a hands-on, frontline worker in the effort to feed, clothe, and house a continuous flow of foreign nationals arriving in Portland by airplane or bus from the U.S. southern border, told The Epoch Times, “Our family shelter facilities, our warming room, and even area hotel space is at capacity. We have maxed out our community resources.
“The time is coming when I’m going to have to look a dad in the face and tell him and his family that I don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight.”
The Portland Family Shelter is a complex of four rented buildings in various states of renovation located in the heart of downtown.
Some of the structures are gradually being converted into small apartments where up to four families will share a single kitchen and bathroom.
All four buildings are overflowing their present capacity.
“The intake is greater and faster than we can process,” Guthrie said.
To accommodate the stream of new arrivals, the family shelter program has in recent months placed 309 families (1,091 people) in eight hotels located in five neighboring municipalities spread over three counties of southeastern Maine’s prime tourist and vacation region.
Those moves, with their attendant complications and problems, have resulted in some pushback from the local Mainers who fear their prized relaxed lifestyle may never be the same.
And they resent not having a voice in any of it.
“It’s just part of the state government’s plan to bring the slums to the suburbs,” said a Mainer from the resort and tourist community of Kennebunkport, a small town about 28 miles down the Atlantic coast from Portland.
“The United States cannot rescue Africa.”
Coming out of the Kennebunkport post office, long-time Mainers Virginia and Robert shared their opinions on what the locals see as the “invasion” of Maine by immigrants.
Virginia commented, “We have sympathy for the asylum seekers, but resources are over-extended and now it’s going beyond Portland.”
“Eventually, it’s going to impact our quality of life,” Robert said.
Pressures on Portland’s homeless shelter capacity last year inspired a York County community action group to obtain a federal grant to help house the city’s regular homeless population.
The plan included renting half a dozen large motels in a three-mile corridor in the heart of southeastern Maine’s Atlantic-shore tourist region.
Motels within walking distance of shopping opportunities were selected.
The motels close in the off-season, so it appeared to some people to be a win-win arrangement.
Included in the plan was the small, quiet, resort town of Wells, located about six miles from Kennebunkport.
Though the program sheltered hundreds of individuals from the brutal Maine winter, the resulting wave of never-before-seen vandalism, burglaries, and other property crimes in the commercial district forced the city of Wells to evict every tenant for violations of several municipal ordinances.
It is unclear where the evicted people were relocated.
Homeless Victimized and Intimidated
According to Captain Gerald Congdon of the Wells Police Department, the crimes were not committed by foreign asylum seekers, Wells residents, or by the many legitimate, disadvantaged, and debilitated people housed in the motel.
“The perpetrators arrested were mostly ‘couch-surfers’ spending time with homeless friends staying legally at the motel. However, the bulk of grant-qualified motel dwellers had drug problems,” Congdon said.
One small business operator, whose sweetshop was burglarized, told The Epoch Times, “The thieves were druggies in need of a fix. They came in through a window, stole the cash from the register, and took our digital scales.
“These people were brought in around Christmastime. It was like an invasion. We never had a crime at our store before they came in and ruined things.
“It’s not fair. We now think differently. They changed the whole landscape of how we do business. We don’t want to see them come back.”
Congdon told The Epoch Times, “There was shoplifting at the bigger chain stores and car break-ins going after loose change in the strip mall parking lot.
“A small bike shop was burglarized twice, losing thousands of dollars-worth of high-end bicycles—never happened to them in 42 years of business.
“Our officers spent a lot of time on disturbance calls and enforcing warrants. We made quite a few arrests and recovered some stolen property.
“The management of the area’s motels got tired of seeing us there. They were tired of their legitimate businesses being associated with crime.
“The nice tenants, many of whom are truly deserving of help, were being victimized and intimidated. They were afraid to call us.”
Congdon said his department was not consulted and was given no advance notice on the plan to bring hundreds of homeless people—including many known drug-addicts—into their city.
The City of Wells was not compensated for the additional hours of policing.
On May 1, a hotel in the resort town of Old Orchard Beach, located about halfway between Portland and Kennebunkport, evicted all of its residents for a different reason.
This time, they were asylum seekers evicted in order to make room for the arrival of legally permitted temporary seasonal workers to lodge there.
These special visa-holders make up the majority of the workforce needed by the region’s thriving hospitality industry.
The asylum seekers were relocated to motels in three other southern Maine communities, according to Portland city officials.
In Portland, 500 single asylum seekers are housed in a municipal shelter separate from the family shelter, according to a spokesperson for the city. It too is at capacity.
Guthrie told The Epoch Times that city authorities have publicly notified what he calls “the feeder sources” at the southern border and in Washington D.C. about the immigration crisis unfolding in Portland.
The city administration asked Border Patrol, Health and Human Services, and participating non-profits to stop sending asylum seekers to Portland until sufficient resources become available to adequately care for them.
But the force of the city’s request was blunted when it announced immediately after the notification that it would not turn anybody away, acknowledged Guthrie.
Guthrie stated that the city asked Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, to call out the National Guard to set up emergency shelters and feeding stations but has not yet received an answer.
On June 2, in remarks before the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Mills committed the state to building a new emergency shelter in the city and said she was working to create additional housing for asylum seekers in the area.
She also spoke of the desirability of the in-migration as a source of labor to fill many existing job openings.
Speaking of the migrants, Mills said, “We need the workforce here. We want them to be available for work. Some of them come with incredible skills and experiences that we can employ.”
One long-time Maine resident, who visited the Portland Family Shelter to see the situation for himself, told The Epoch Times, “Mike Guthrie is like a man frantically trying to bail out a sinking rowboat, while his superiors continue to drill holes in it.”
During the month of May, the family shelter took in 79 families consisting of 262 individuals with no slowdown in sight, Guthrie said.
“220 people turned up in just 20 days. We’re trying to help anybody that comes to the door. Thus far, nobody coming to us has had to sleep outside but we can no longer guarantee shelter upon arrival,” he said.
“We need the state of Maine to step in and create safe places for these people. We need a facility to be created and run like a FEMA camp.
“Our legislators are talking about buying and renovating older apartments throughout the region that could house 140 families. That’s great in the long-term, but the problem is now!
“At the rate things are going, we’d have those places filled in two months. Then what?” Guthrie asked.
Portland’s pastors, church members, and its citizens have been stepping forward to do what they can.
“Local churches and those in Cumberland are offering space for people to sleep and some Portland residents have even opened up their homes,” Guthrie said.
Where Are the Asylum Seekers Coming From?
The vast majority of the new arrivals at the family shelter in Portland have come from Angola and the Congo in Africa, with some coming from Haiti in the Caribbean.
They make the arduous and often dangerous journey any way they can—largely on foot.
Guthrie told of a father and child who recently showed up at the shelter.
“The man said that his wife, the young child’s mother, died on the way. She was swept away while crossing a river.”
Guthrie explained that the route to Portland for most of the asylum seekers begins in chaos-torn western equatorial Africa.
“They cross the Atlantic to South America. They go up through South America and then north through Central America, ending up in northern Mexico, from which they cross the southern border into the United States.
“At that point, they present themselves to Border Patrol.
“A new arrival tells Border Patrol ‘I am here to seek asylum. If I go back home, I will be killed. I fear for my life.’ That’s the difference between an asylum seeker and an immigrant,” he said.
Those three short sentences guarantee a person’s admission for a lengthy stay in the United States as his or her claim is adjudicated.
Guthrie went on to explain, “After some additional questioning, the individual is issued minimal paperwork by immigration authorities and told they will be contacted about a formal hearing on their asylum plea. They are then turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
Most are given cell phones.
Public servants with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and representatives of various American non-profit, philanthropic organizations, ask the asylum seekers where they want to go in the interior of the United States to await their asylum hearing.
For many, their answer is “Portland.”
“They are then put on buses or airplanes and sent on their way,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie said that Portland is often recommended to people enroute to the United States by relatives who are already living in the city.
“Once they get here, the majority of the new arrivals want to stay in Portland. They tell their relatives and friends about us,” he said.
Jessica Grondin, the city’s director of communications and media, told The Epoch Times in a phone interview, “Portland is happy about and proud of our good reputation as a ‘Welcoming City.’ We presently have a large Somali population, as well as many Iraqis and Afghans who arrived here previously.”
Grondin said that several busloads of asylum seekers recently shipped off to Washington D.C. by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ultimately made their way to Portland.
She stated that, along with the lack of housing, one of the biggest problems facing the city is a shortage of staff to care for the volume of new arrivals.
Guthrie said that the influx asylum seekers has exceeded the city’s ability to offer basic services.
“As we outgrow our past limits, we are being forced to prioritize what we are doing for these people. We are no longer able to help them connect with local immigration attorneys, nor help them learn English,” he said.
Effective May 7, a policy change took effect forbidding the shelter’s staff from assisting asylum seekers in finding an apartment.
“Instead, these folks, who are complete strangers to this community and speak no English, are being qualified for a state General Assistance housing voucher.
“They are given a sample lease, a rental form, and an explanation of the GA process, and are then sent out on their own to find a place to live,” Guthrie said.
While most of the new arrivals speak Portuguese, some speak French, Lingala, or another tribal language. Many are bilingual, but none speak English.
Weary of waiting around, some of the French-speakers asked to be sent to Quebec, but the strict Canadian rules concerning COVID-19 prevented them from entering, Guthrie stated.
Condition and Needs of Asylum Seekers
Guthrie described the migrants’ situation, saying, “Understand, the majority of these people arrive here with no money. They spent their life savings during their trip and have to start over. They need everything.
“They come from hot climates wearing summer clothes. We have given away about 97 percent of our clothing stock to help them cope with the colder weather here in Maine.
“We have to keep many people outside during the day and then pack them into our warming room for the chilly Maine nights, or on rainy days,” he said.
Fathers, mothers, and their numerous small children are kept outside all day long. They stand on the sidewalk across the street from the shelter or sit in an alley between two old houses passing the time until the next meal.
The grimy concrete and stony gravel of the alley serve as furniture. There are no chairs or tables. They sit or recline on whatever is at hand, or on the bare dirt.
The shade formed by the receding shadow of the walls of the surrounding old buildings is their only comfort.
Antsy and bored small children have no toys with which to amuse themselves, except for one little boy who rides a plastic big-wheel tricycle around the alley.
A small bathroom is available to people upon request in one of the shelter’s buildings, or at a nearby city-owned singles’ shelter around the block.
“For showers, we team up with a local church that comes by with a bus and offers showers to any of them that want to go,” Guthrie said.
When asked if the asylum seekers are Christians, Guthrie answered that many ride a bus to church services on Sunday morning.
The shelter provides families with three meals a day, prepared off-site by “community partners.”
“We pick up the meals and bring them here and serve them indoors. The food is decent. A typical lunch is a sandwich, salad, soup, granola bars, snacks, milk and water,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie told The Epoch Times that the family shelter is providing standard baby formula for the young children, but one baby is intolerant to it.
This infant requires a specialty brand that is hard to get—a fact that is upsetting to the mother and her child.
The Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition (MIRC) is providing asylum seekers residing in hotels and motels with some culturally appropriate foods such as fufu (an African staple), goat meat, greens, chicken, and rice, he said.
A lot of the accommodations do not have kitchens.
According to Guthrie, the cost per motel room is between $250 and $350 dollars per night and rising as the tourist season begins.
MIRC is part of a network of 85 statewide organizations involved in the care of the thousands of asylum seekers already here and those that are arriving daily.
Guthrie said the state is footing 70 percent of the family shelter’s expenses, with the city making up the remaining 30 percent.
But Guthrie says that getting the children into school is among the best assistance that can be provided.
“The schools offer all kinds of different programs. They have community resource officers. They keep the kids busy while giving them two meals a day,” he said.
More than 60 different foreign languages are spoken by students at Portland area schools, further complicating every task associated with education.
When asked about the overall health condition of the asylum seekers, Guthrie replied, “They are exhausted and scared. They haven’t travelled a safe route. Though clearly traumatized, very few will talk about the details of their experience. Counselling is available if requested.”
Teams of health care workers are performing what Guthrie calls “health outreach.” They have set up clinics at some of the motels to perform triage and make any necessary medical referrals.
The city of Portland has a busy public health clinic helping to provide treatment, but some people with more serious conditions end up in emergency rooms.
To overcome the language barrier, the city provides interpreters, and health care workers make use of cell phone translation apps.
On the whole, Guthrie said most of the people under his supervision are physically “very healthy.”
“Pregnancy is the families’ most urgent medical concern, and their most pressing medical need is OBGYN (obstetrics and gynecology) care,” he said.
He also said there is some sickle cell disease among them.
City Hall allowed The Epoch Times access to several families being warehoused outdoors and a number of parents were eager to talk about their current plight.
Speaking through an interpreter provided by the shelter, and in the presence of shelter director Guthrie, Samantha, a young Angolan woman with a 10-month-old baby on her hip and a toddler in tow, was not shy about sharing her dissatisfaction.
When asked if her family’s basic needs were being met, Samantha replied, “We just need a place to sleep. We stay outside in the sun and the elements because there is not enough space for us indoors. There are not enough clothes for my family.
“Being outside all day is not good for my baby. Some of us have caught colds. Some had fevers. Some were so sick they went to the hospital.
“My son eats a special baby formula. I have to ration his feeding.
“What we are fed is very different than what we are used to. We are receiving no culturally appropriate food. There was no way for us to take a shower for five days.
“We endured a seven-month journey to come to this! We are not happy. Conditions are not good! We really need help.”
When asked if she felt welcome, Samantha said with a look of disbelief, “No! I do not feel welcome. Look at us. We are outside.”
Landry, a housepainter and electrician’s helper, brought his wife Sylvie, two-year-old daughter, and 12-month-old son to Portland from the Congo.
When asked why he risked the journey, Landry answered, “I left my country because of political issues and insecurity. There we could be sure of nothing. Here, it’s different.”
Sylvie said, “We came from Texas unprepared for this Maine weather. I am not happy for how I am living here. I don’t feel welcome!”