Portland City Councilor Pious Ali speaks on the steps of City Hall on Thursday during a press conference about efforts to house recent asylum-seeking arrivals. The roughly 150 families in the emergency shelter must be out before August 15. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

PORTLAND, Maine — A group of immigrant community leaders held a press conference on Thursday seeking to clear the air and depoliticize efforts to find housing for the sudden influx of asylum seekers currently staying at a temporary shelter in the Expo.

They said the recent swirl of infighting among City Councilors, City Manager Jon Jennings, city staff and Mayor Ethan Strimling over the past few days is hurting their own efforts to help and blamed it on simple miscommunication.

The roughly 70 families in the shelter must be out before August 15 when the Red Claws minor league basketball team returns to the Expo.

“We’re not going into politics,” said Claude Rwaganje of ProsperityME, a non-profit helping new Mainers with basic financial literacy. “This is a humanitarian issue.”

The political problems started Tuesday night when the city’s Health and Human Services director, Kristen Dow, told city councilors that asylum-seeking families were turning down offers of housing outside of Portland.

[Portland mayor accused of misinforming asylum seekers ahead of deadline to close temporary shelter]

Dow’s remarks to the City Council largely echoed an email she sent last week to City Manager Jon Jennings. But in that email, which was provided to Maine Public Radio, Dow added that city staff “simply can’t compete with a counter-message” from Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Strimling denied playing any part in families’ decisions to deny housing assignments outside of Portland. But several councilors, including his re-election opponent Spencer Thibodeau, accused the mayor of sending mixed messages that could have dire consequences for families who do not take housing assignments outside of the city.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

The council’s policy is that anyone who refuses a housing offer can no longer stay at the shelter.

After that, they may end up at an overflow facility open only at night which provides no meals or medical care.

After meeting with many asylum seekers at the Expo on Wednesday night, leaders at Thursday’s press conference chalked the kerfuffle up to language barriers.

“There may have been some miscommunication,” City Councilor Pious Ali said.

Ali said he couldn’t be sure what the people in the Expo knew before the meeting on Tuesday night but he’s confident they understand the situation now.

“They are aware of the deadline of August 15th,” Rwaganje said. “We heard their voices. They are willing to go anyplace because anyplace is better than the Expo.”

[Portland officials scramble as asylum seekers refuse housing offers outside city]

The leaders also stressed the ongoing work by the city and other agencies to locate suitable housing.

Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition said 30 Maine families had volunteered to co-house asylum seekers in their own homes.

“The majority of families are in the greater Portland area,” Chatim said.

Chatim said her agency was working to interview potential host families and match them with asylum seekers, who are mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So far, they’ve only placed one family.

“We just started yesterday,” she added.

Deqa Dhalac, of the South Portland City Council was also on hand. Dhalac said she was helping to coordinate transportation for asylum seekers when they find housing out of town.

Other asylum-seeker families have found housing in Brunswick.

“They are happy to be there,” said Rwaganje, who had visited some earlier in the day.

Additional reporting comes through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.