During a late-night session of the South Portland City Council, the suburb’s representatives voted unanimously to apply a series of new restrictions, including a soft deadline for final cessation, on a handful of hotels in South Portland currently acting as emergency shelters for hundreds of asylum seekers and homeless Mainers.
Days Inn, Comfort Inn, and Howard Johnson, three hotels in South Portland owned by New Gen Hotels Group LLC, along with Casco Bay Hotel, owned by Northeastern Group Management, LLC, (the odd one out in more ways than one), were under the microscope of South Portland’s council on the evening of August 2nd. The city’s government initiated the hearings, formally, to consider revoking these hotels’ licenses to operate, but from the very beginning all parties made it clear that a complete revocation was not on the table. Rather, the council would use this opportunity to impose a series of pre-negotiated restrictions on the hotels, as conditions for their licenses being sustained, in an attempt to minimize the burden being placed on city services.
A mixture of asylum seekers, (foreign nationals present in the United States who are seeking permanent safe refuge in the country), and domestic unhoused persons have been living in several hotels in South Portland since 2020. Their costs of living, estimated by GPCOG to be approximately $12,000 per room per month, (including food), are being paid by local nonprofits, the City of Portland, the State of Maine, and, by far the greatest contributor, the federal government. For the hundreds of individuals and families staying in these hotels cost-free since 2020, having four walls and a door with a lock during a severe housing crisis has been a great relief, but many complaints have been raised by the surrounding community.
“We were finding that people were deceased in their rooms for more than two days.”
~ Chief Daniel Ahern, opening statement
The prosecuting force for these changes tonight was the imposing Chief Daniel Ahern of the South Portland police. Opening his presentation with a maritime metaphor from his daily quotes calendar, he proceeded to focus on a series of facts and figures. 911 calls, per Ahern’s presentation, had increased many times over since the beginning of the hotels’ use as emergency shelters. The three New Gen-owned hotels went from an average of 179 emergency calls per year from 2017-2019, to 1,572 calls in 2021, more than an eightfold increase. These calls included domestic violence, assault, refusal to leave, suicide threats, and no small number of accidental calls and hang-ups. They also included a large number of medical calls, but due to requests from EMS and the Fire Department, these too required police involvement to ensure the safety of emergency personnel.
Citing basic shortfalls of manpower to adequately handle this demanding workload, and also reports of “astronomical” increases in petty crime in the area, Chief Ahern invoked two sections of the South Portland Code of Ordinances. Section 14-8(a)(6) and (7) prescribe that when a licensee, (such as these hotels), produces at least two incidents in which on-vicinity patrons are responsible for violating the law, or at least two incidents in which business operations endanger the safety of the surrounding community, (“All we need is two,” Ahern was sure to specify), it is up to the Police Chief to determine whether the licensee had handled the situations to his satisfaction. Several such incidents were cited, and Chief Ahern was not satisfied.
It then is up to the City Council to decide whether to revoke the business’ license, but shutting down these hotels was not what the council had gathered to do tonight. Instead, holding the possibility of revocation as leverage, a series of conditions had been negotiated in advance between South Portland and New Gen, the local hospitality behemoth owned by Suresh Gali, as well as the owners of Casco Bay Hotel. The restrictions for that fourth hotel were negotiated separately, and look quite different. New Gen’s Howard Johnson hotel also avoided having all of the conditions being imposed onto it, as the mostly asylum-seeking guest list there had a much better record of behavior. The two biggest targets, Days Inn and Comfort Inn, house the greatest number of asylum seekers and especially a large number of domestic homeless, 280 between them. They had an identical list of eight restrictions imposed onto them.
Eight Conditions for Days Inn and Comfort Inn
The conditions are summarized below:
- The hotel will be staffed by private security to the satisfaction of the Police Chief, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays, starting August 17th.
- Each room in the hotel will be subject to a welfare check every morning and afternoon. A detailed log will be kept by the hotel recording the findings of these inspections.
- The hotel’s phones will use the number “8”, instead of “9”, as the ‘dial-out’ button.
- A full list of guests, including the identity of the person or organization paying for the rooms, will be provided to the South Portland Police by the hotel every month.
- Beginning on January 1st, 2023, once a room is vacated, it can’t be filled again by a government or nonprofit placement.
- The hotel will not extend or enter any contracts with any governments or nonprofits for such services beyond February 28th, 2023.
- If any individual placed by a government or nonprofit is still being housed in the hotel after March 1st, 2023, the hotel will be fined by South Portland an amount three times the nightly rate being paid for the room. This fine can’t be less than $350 or more than $500 per guest, per day.
- The hotels will cooperate with the City of South Portland Board of Health to implement a variety of measures intended to provide non-emergency health and safety services to guests, including laminated cards with phone numbers to resource offices, a daily shuttle to and from Portland, and collaboration with Portland nonprofits.
See here for the full conditions.
Before going any further, you probably also thought that third one was a little strange, changing the dial-out key from “9” to “8”. In an unfortunate coincidence, after dialing “9” to begin an outside call, many asylum seekers from abroad were then pressing “11” to initiate an international call. Unintentionally dialing 911, they would then, in confusion, hang up the phone. This would prompt an unnecessary visit from the police. With the simple change of having the dial-out key be “8” instead of “9”, many of these accidental emergency calls could be eliminated. This has, according to Chief Ahern, been implemented elsewhere to great effect.
The other conditions are mostly self-explanatory. The hotel paying for private security, performing routine welfare checks, and keeping detailed logs of guests were all seen as reasonable demands to be made against the hotels. The welfare checks in particular, (the word ‘welfare’ was only added in addendum, originally the order only specified “checks”), were understood to be quite vital after Ahern’s report of dead bodies being found after days of isolation horrified council members.
The sixth and seventh conditions, however, will likely prove to be the most pivotal. Without forcefully evicting anyone, these institute a soft deadline on returning these hotels to normal operation. There was much bitterness in the room and on Zoom tonight, with South Portland residents being frustrated by New Gen’s previous promise to end the shelter program by the end of June – followed by a complete volte-face. In an eleventh-hour deal, after pleading from the City of Portland, Gali agreed to continue it without a new end date in sight.
These new conditions put taking new asylum seeker or unhoused guests out of the question starting in 2023, and beginning in March, South Portland will begin exacting heavy fines for any that remain. The wording of the condition suggests that South Portland expects the hotels to seek reimbursement from the organizations currently paying for room and board. For those government departments and non-government organizations, mostly based out of Portland, facilitating these placements, this deadline will be looming over their finances.
South Portland had, to an unusual degree, publicized tonight’s hybrid in-person and Zoom meeting on social media, and as such the public comments were diverse and many.
Rage against New Gen – and Portland
Matt Bayliss, business owner and South Portland resident, took to the podium in person to rail against the alleged irresponsibility of New Gen and duplicity of Portland’s government, a theme that would be repeated throughout the night. “New Gen is not [acting] in good faith, these guys are out of control”, Bayliss said, with Gali making tens of millions of dollars off of the “FEMA faucet”, while neglecting his duty of care and investing none of their windfall back into the community or new Mainers. An earlier public comment had also recommended punitively taxing New Gen to pay for the increased costs they were putting on the community. Another resident, via Zoom, accused the Portland government of treating South Portland like “a dumping ground”, and failing to uphold their end of the bargain. In a second comment, (each of the four hotels was treated in a formally separate procedure), Bayliss echoed the point, putting Portland “in the same bucket as New Gen”, “a hot mess of ineptitude.” Throughout the evening, a simmering resentment towards Portland proper was palpable.
A countervailing message was heard from Portland’s interim city manager, Danielle West, who emphasized the shared burden that this crisis represents, and promised deeper cooperation between Portland’s resources and those of South Portland. Other voices from Portland, such as Kristen Dow, Director of Health & Human Services in Portland, concurred, but fuzzy feelings for Portland remained scarce.
Views from Within
Two mothers, who had both arrived as asylum seekers over the past year and were living in the hotels in question, also gave comment. One, with a degree in finance and whose husband has a degree in physics, told the council of how they had heard Maine was a “good place” for people like her family, and that they had “arrived with heads full of dreams,” but now were staring down the barrel of having nowhere to go. They had applied for work permits, but were still unable to legally work, and so could not find housing anywhere else. The second woman, who also was waiting for her work permit, stated that despite looking for housing every day, she was scared of what a Maine winter without shelter would mean for her children.
Emilia Franco, Vice President of the Angolan Community of Maine, insisted that instead of imposing these restrictions, the South Portland police should engage with cultural brokers like herself and others in her organization to help acculturate newcomers to American life. She admitted that, upon first arrival, “there was a mess”, due to a lack of mutual understanding. But, she insists, once taught what local expectations are, incidents with emergency services would be vastly reduced. Many other local residents had nothing but kind things to say about asylum seekers, and both Suresh Gali and Chief Ahern indicated that it was the domestic unhoused, not asylum seekers, that cause the most trouble for police.
The Housing Crisis
Another pervasive theme of public comments was the housing shortage in Greater Portland. Mary Cook, a case manager for Preble Street, said that the lack of housing has “never been this bad,” and that ending the program would put hundreds on the streets. Several residents, including a social worker who works to place the needy in housing, lamented at the utter dearth of any housing at all. “The Oxford Street shelter is not safe”, and locals can expect to see “more tents and encampments.” Older residents recalled how in years past, two-bedroom apartments could be rented for $1,200 a month, and now couldn’t be found for less than $2,000. Council Member Henderson suggested that long-term, well-funded, secure housing for the psychiatrically unstable, as had been found in the old mental health institutions and asylums, was necessary for those who needed it. Westbrook council member and Prosperity Maine representative Claude Rwaganje reinforced the point, asking about the 730 individuals that could be affected by these restrictions, “What happens if 730 individuals go on the streets?”
Several residents voiced support for addressing the housing shortage, especially in the form of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), apparently a popular subject in the city. Council member Katherine Lewis stated that, with regards to new housing, “South Portland is doing as much as it can,” a doubtful claim, and voiced skepticism of building market-rate housing. Some residents, in response to the housing shortage, suggested that instead of being a problem to solve, turning hotels into transition housing could become a model for other cities to follow. Others, however, decried the unsustainability of relying on stopgap measures like hotels to deal with permanent problems.
A Predestined Conclusion
Despite, or perhaps because of, the kaleidoscope of public comments, only very minor adjustments were made to the orders prior to their passage by unanimous vote. Any more serious changes to the conditions would have required the consent of New Gen and the owners of Casco Bay Hotel, and this was clearly not something the council was interested in relitigating. Regarding Casco Bay Hotel, the odd duck, this independent hotel owned by Northeastern Group Management was represented by attorney Sam Sherry, who insisted on the distinction of the hotel from those owned by New Gen.
Unlike those, Casco Bay Hotel housed only a “very small” (but unspecified) number of asylum seekers and unhoused, and that number was shrinking, not growing. After being pressed by council members, Sherry assured them that all departures had been voluntary – not evictions – and the individuals in question had advice of counsel. Casco Bay Hotel has, according to him, zero interest in being a social services institution and plans to return to being a strictly conventional hotel as soon as is reasonable. “Think of Residence Inn. Except without the resident part.” Upon being asked by the council why they were working with the South Portland police on these conditions at all, it was said that Northeastern Group Management simply wanted to maintain a cordial relationship with the police and the city government.
Still, there might have been a fifth hotel on the chopping block tonight, but instead the Quality Inn had implemented enough measures to significantly reduce the emergency call volume. This private initiative was enough for South Portland to consider their objections with Quality Inn, which houses almost exclusively asylum seekers, not domestic unhoused individuals, to be satisfied. No conditions for this hotel’s license were imposed.
Where this leaves South Portland remains to be seen, the dates for the soft deadline were chosen, in part, for the hope that the new homeless shelter being built by Portland will be completed by then. If this fails to happen, or if some other crisis rears its head, we may see yet another deadline postponed. If not, then South Portland will continue its stubborn trek back towards normalcy.
Update 8/3/22 – Clarified source of block quote.