In a busy but efficiently-disposed agenda, the City Council on February 5th approved a slew of parks projects and appointed a new member to the Public Art Committee. A financial report from Clean Elections shed new light on how public funds were being spent, the city’s Housing Safety Division defends itself against attacks from the Press Herald, and the limited state of emergency at the Homeless Services Center was extended until June. The city accepted money from the state to continue supporting asylum claimants, arranged for the replacement of a police robot, and the controversial H.O.P.E. program smashed through dissent and into law.
General Public Comment
Only one public commenter was present that evening, and it was Zack Barowitz, a former Charter Commissioner and generally involved citizen, with two comments. First, he urged the council to seriously scrutinize an alleged proposal for a ramp to the Roux Institute, which he opposed. His second point regarded the Police Citizen Review Board, a new part of city government enacted by charter reform in 2022, (partially drafted by Barowitz himself.) He was concerned that the board, while still being established, was being prevented from seriously reviewing the standards of procedure by which police operate, and that unless this changes they will be unable to make a significant improvement to police-citizen understanding. With the end of his concerns, Mayor Dion called the period to a close.
The first order of the evening, Order 107, would appoint Kelly Hrenko, PhD to the Public Art Committee. The PAC “preserves, restores, and enhances the City’s public art collection” and “promote[s] the educational, cultural, economic, and general welfare of the City and its citizens through art.” Without any comments or discussion, this appointment passed unanimously.
Next was Order 121, a regular action to appoint a number of constables from the Portland Housing Authority for a one-year term. Constables are law enforcement officials who cannot make arrests or carry firearms but can perform other enforcement actions, such as issuing citations or delivering legal notices. Steven Scharf, a council meeting regular, made a public comment pertaining to an issue of technical formatting which was duly noted, but otherwise the order passed unanimously and without comment or discussion.
Councilor Phillips asked Mayor Dion whether any announcement period had been planned, and the mayor replied that he had not planned for one but that she was welcome to make any announcements at this time. Graciously, Councilor Phillips announced her appreciation for the Greater Portland Comprehensive Addiction Medicine office with MaineHealth, which she believed was more important than ever. She was impressed by the innovative and expansive services offered, and looks forward to the good work which it will surely do. Dr. Kristen Silvia earned a particular shout-out for her efforts from Ms. Phillips.
City Manager Danielle West joined in this acknowledgement, and made the additional announcement that January 2024 was the first month since 2021 in which Portland emergency services did not have to respond to a single case of fatal opioid overdose. Mayor Dion added his own words of appreciation for MaineHealth’s addiction services.
A series of licenses were unanimously approved without any hullaballoo. First, Freedom’s Edge Tasting Room at 31 Diamond Street, Unit A was approved for a Class III and IV Food Service Establishment license with outdoor dining. Next up, Orange Bike Brewing (which already operates at 31 Diamond Street as well) was approved for an additional Combined Entertainment license. Smoked BBQ and Neighborhood Pub, a new establishment at 951 Forest Avenue, was approved for a Class XI Restaurant and Lounge license with Combined Entertainment.
Leisure Time Cocktail Company was approved as a new Class A Lounge with Outdoor Dining at 290 Thompson’s Point Road; the site was previously Rwanda Bean. Finally, the already-existing Brickyard Hollow Brewing at 5 Commercial Street extended its On-Premise License Privileges as a Class XI lounge. With no further licenses, the council proceeded into its Communications section.
First came Communication 28, Annual Report of the Clean Elections Program. City Clerk Ashley Rand gave a brief overview of the financial statistics of the Clean Election Fund’s first year of operations. This fund operates by granting public funds to election candidates who agree to abide by certain rules, and whose supporters contribute a sufficient number of individual donations to the fund itself.
Rand only briefly noted some major figures, announcing that from a starting balance of $465,000, 7 candidates had participated in the program for the November 2023 election. These campaigns had raised approximately $16,000 in “qualifying contributions” to the fund, enabling payouts, and the fund had then distributed approximately $196,000 to the seven candidates. The full report can be found here. The supplemental spreadsheet can be found here.
Councilor Ali clarified that going forward, the City Council will review the costs and benefits of the Clean Elections program as part of their regular budget process. Councilor Bullett, one of the beneficiaries of the program, thanked Clerk Rand for her and her office’s work, and also commented on the excellent report.
Rand stopped there, but delving into the report somewhat deeper, the Townsman can report that the fund doled out a net of $74,002.46 to 2nd place mayoral candidate Andrew Zarro, who came within a few hundred votes of victory. The figure for the distant 4th place candidate, Justin Costa, was a similar $59,914.25. Smaller amounts were also distributed to candidates for the City Council and School Board.
Portland Harbor Common
Next, the City Council heard from Ethan Hipple, Director of Parks, Recreation, & Facilities for the first of several times that evening. This first time, the subject was Portland Harbor Common, a planned park in the city’s Old Port, near the intersection of Thames St. and India St. The project is a collaboration between multiple parts of the city government, as well as a number of nonprofit partners – most notably Portland Parks Conservancy, who would also become a recurring feature of the evening.
The park’s location takes advantage of the space left behind after the CAT ferry ceased serving Portland. Funds from the federal government, the state government, the city, and private groups were all already earmarked for this project. The park would be a fairly low-key development, allowing for easy views of the sea, Fort Gorges, and the ships which come into the harbor from some distance. While it was acknowledged that there will be many permitting and licensing hoops to jump through, Hipple stated that they could break ground for the park as early as fall 2024, and at the latest by spring 2025.
Project Manager Bob Massengale would have been present, but for the recent birth of his and his wife’s new baby, to which the Townsman joins others present in chambers in congratulations.
Correction 2/9/2024: A previous version of this article misreported the name of the manager who was absent. Thank you to Ethan Hipple for the corrected information.
Councilor Phillips, in what is becoming her signature issue, expressed concern over the impact to downtown parking availability. She asked Hipple whether the lost spots would be made up for elsewhere, given the already-existing shortage of parking spots in the Old Port. Director Hipple largely dismissed the concern, stating that there would still be remaining parking spots in the area. Councilor Trevorrow thanked the park staff and signaled her approval, as did Rodriguez following a brief clarification as to the current state of the land’s management.
Rent Control Enforcement
A recent Portland Press Herald editorial explored how the city enforces its rent control ordinance, which was enacted in 2020 and amended in 2022, both times by referendum. Notably, the article asserted that the city had “fielded 182 complaints, mandated 150 cases of remedial action and issued 37 violations against landlords… But the city has yet to issue a single fine.” The Press Herald identified multiple scenarios in which the city could have levied a fine, and was recommended to do so by the Rent Board, but opted to seek alternative means of resolution. This survey, with the report which was presented by the city’s Rent Board at the last meeting which suggested there may be hundreds of landlords quietly not conforming to registration requirements, were presented to suggest that Portland’s administration is choosing to not – or can not – effectively enforce the ordinance.
The organ of city government charged with enforcing rent control is the Licensing and Housing Safety Division of the Inspections and Permitting Department. Jessica Hanscombe, Director of said department, presented a report addressing the concerns of the article. “One of the bigger misconceptions is that staff is not enforcing the ordinance.”
Correction 2/7/24: A precious version of this article incorrectly described the division of government responsible for enforcing rent control. Thank you to Zachary Lenhert for the correction!
Contrary to some of the Press Herald’s implications, Director Hanscombe asserted that the city, (which, she emphasized, had only 30 days to set up an entire enforcement apparatus once the referendum passed,) had followed the letter of the law and not failed in a single instance to uphold the administration’s legal obligation. She further implied, though did not directly state, that any criticisms of enforcement mechanisms would be better directed at the referendum’s provisions.
Nevertheless, agreeing that enforcement could be more active, she shared that three new employees had been recently hired and were being onboarded. These new staff members will be focused on enforcement, with two of them assigned to a thorough investigation of current registrations. All irregularities would be further investigated to establish the cause of the potential discrepancies, according to Hanscombe.
Hanscombe then reported her office’s numbers of complaints and violations, which were different from the numbers reported by the Press Herald. She said that in 2021, her department had fielded 19 complaints, and found 11 violations; in 2022 it was 24 complaints with 8 violations; and in 2023 it was 29 complaints with 20 violations. These added up to a total of 72 complaints and 39 violations since the implementation of rent control. The number of complaints was quite different from the Press Herald’s figure of 182.
Furthermore, she explained that most violations were less inflammatory than might be assumed. She explained that a common issue emerged after the passage of the 2022 referendum; the new law required a 90-day notice to tenants, while previously it had only required a 75-day notice. For those landlords who had recently issued , or were scheduled to soon issue, such 75-day notices, they were now required to retract those notices and issue a new 90-day notice. This was not an obvious course of action, per Hanscombe, and was the basis of many of these violations, nothing to do with landlords intentionally raising rent beyond what was legal. She also explained that the definition of “base rent” in the ordinance, (the rent which was being charged for a unit in June 2020,) was confusing to many landlords, and led to slightly incorrect estimations of rent increases.
Concluding her defense, she offered to answer any questions that the councilors may still have. Taking her up on this offer, recently-elected Councilor Sykes thanked Ms. Hanscombe, explaining that “all anybody wants is compliance” with the law, and that she trusted the department to see that matters improved.
Councilor Phillips, raising an obvious question, asked why the Press Herald’s figure was in such discrepancy with Hanscombe’s official count of complaints. The director was not sure, however she suspected that they may be counting differently. As an example, she explained that in the case of the 75- and 90-day notice confusion, her office counted this as a single incident, even if multiple units and tenants were affected. If the Press Herald counted the number of tenants affected, as opposed to the number of incidents, Hanscombe supposed, the total would be much higher.
Without further comment, Mayor Dion thanked the director and moved on to the night’s unfinished business.
First up was Order 120, extending the state of emergency in place at the Homeless Services Center. This state of emergency (enacted November 13th, 2023) only applies to the single piece of property which the shelter sits on, and allows the city to override certain zoning ordinances, labor requirements, and other rules which otherwise restrict the shelter’s capacity. The state of emergency was deemed necessary in order to respond to the homeless encampments around the city. If approved, the state of emergency would be extended to June 3rd, 2024.
Opening up public comments, Cheryl Hawkins of Homeless Voices for Justice spoke in favor, and also began to speak about the other issues concerning the homeless which the city council was hearing about that evening. Mayor Dion stopped her, informing her that she was only allowed to speak about this single issue, but after she indicated that she had prepared a script for herself which integrated all of the issues, he and the council allowed her to continue with her statement.
Terrance Miller, Advocacy Director of Preble Street, also spoke in favor, emphasizing that the greater the number of people sheltered inside, the fewer tents people need to deal with outside. Cullen Ryan, from Community Housing of Portland, expressed sentiment along similar lines. He asserted that when the capacity at the HSC was initially expanded, a swift decrease in encampment activity followed.
Councilor Rodriguez spoke first among the councilors, signaling his support for the extension, and he also asked whether perhaps a regular, seasonal increase for HSC operations in the summer would be a prudent proposal for the council to consider either that night or in the near future. He reiterated several times that the council needs to obtain as much data as possible.
Councilor Bullett strenuously praised the ECRT after-action report for being an excellent source of information. She would bring up how comprehensive and clear this PDF was multiple times throughout the night. Bullett then asked Interim Director of Health and Human Services, Shaza Stevenson, what the plan was for continuing to minimize the number of barriers to the shelter.
Stevenson explained that the number one barrier, according to surveys, was the feeling of a loss of autonomy for the homeless. She noted that this is an obstacle which can’t really be overcome on the shelter’s part. But second was transportation, and third was storage space for belongings, both of which she felt her department was having success in improving. Stevenson also noted that, regarding those couples who did not want to be separated at the shelter, couples are allowed to stay at the HSC of course, but that due to rules about gender separation they aren’t allowed to sleep together.
Bullett thanked the director for this explanation, and asked all city staff to consider seeking out greater state and federal resources which may be available to handle the homelessness issue. Councilor Sykes, in whose district the HSC is, said that the shelter appears to have been operating swimmingly at the current levels, and so supports the extension of the program. She, however, underlined that the HSC is supposed to be emergency shelter, not housing. The city should be ensuring that it isn’t becoming a permanent home for people. Sykes also suggested that shelter staff reach out more to local neighbors and demystify what actually happens at the shelter, explaining that there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Councilor Phillips opened by asking whether her impression, that most people who enter the HSC are finding permanent housing quickly, is accurate. Aaron Geyer, Homeless Services Director, seemed to misunderstand her question, so Phillips clarified, asking approximately what percentage of guests at the HSC were leaving because they found permanent housing. He wasn’t prepared to answer the question, but Manager West said she would attempt to find the information.
Mayor Dion concluded the discussion by offering his own viewpoint, “I keep two words in my mind, Capacity… and ‘Sticky.’” He argued that no one spot on the process of recovery from homelessness should become ‘sticky.’ Dion, like Sykes, wants to avoid homeless individuals staying long-term at any one place which is used for supporting homeless people in general.
The extension passed unanimously as an emergency.
A Parade of Parks Donations and Grants
Next came Order 103, accepting and appropriating a $10,613.31 donation from the Portland Rotary Charitable Fund for the planting of trees in the Bayside neighborhood. Parks Director Ethan Hipple briefly introduced the proposed donation, thanking the donors and encouraging the council to accept the money. This would be the first in a series of similar orders.
In public comment, Sarah Michniewicz spoke in favor, noting that Bayside has the lowest “tree equity” score in Portland, with many impoverished and nonwhite people and very few trees. She said this would go a long way towards “Restoring the forest canopy in the least forest-y part of the forest city.” Jim Hall, also of Bayside, briefly also spoke in favor, noting that he had long supported expanding tree cover on the peninsula, and wanted the city to make what infrastructure improvements are necessary to continue to work.
Councilor Rodriguez asked how many trees this would cover, and what Portland does to ensure that newly-planted trees are successful. Hipple explained that about 200 trees are planted each year across Portland, and that newly-planted are watered once a week for two years, (after which they can usually survive on their own.) Trees are also provided with mulch as they require, but this is more irregular chore. Mulching is already done largely in cooperation with neighborhood groups and other civilian volunteers, and he extends an invitation to all residents to mulch their local trees (but he also asks that the “ugly red mulch” is eschewed in favor of the more aesthetic dark mulch.) Rodriguez thanked Mr. Hipple, and this appreciation was echoed by Councilor Trevorrow.
Mayor Dion wrapped up the discussion with his whole-hearted approval. He said he is always willing to support more trees and that Bayside is the ideal neighborhood for such an effort, noting the “wasteland” of concrete which characterizes much of it. It passed unanimously without further comment.
Another donation, of $58,587, was swiftly and unanimously accepted from the Portland Parks Conservancy (a private nonprofit) in Order 104. This money would be directed to the Portland Youth Corps, a city-run program for young people to engage in public service, recreation, and environmental stewardship in Portland’s green spaces. Introduced by Director Hipple, the council was again happy to receive the assistance.
Next on the agenda was Order 105, accepting and appropriating yet another donation to a Parks project, yet again introduced by Parks Director Ethan Hipple. “It’s the Ethan show tonight,” Manager West joked. Mr. Hipple smiled and explained “We try to consolidate our items to be all on one night.”
This order was for the construction of a new footbridge connecting two networks of trails in Portland, the Stroudwater River Bridge. The process was a three-parter, as Hipple explained, with one donation of $31,385 from Stroudwater Development Partners, LLC, one donation of $50,000 from Portland Trails (a private nonprofit,) and finally a grant of $120,000 from the State of Maine Recreational Trails Program. Without any comments or questions, this too passed unanimously.
Order 106, approving a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Cumberland County and accepting a $235,550 payment from the same, sparked some interest for mention of a “Hazardous Devices Unit Robot” which was being replaced. Cumberland County, in exchange for use of Portland’s materiel and services, was paying the city for replacement and maintenance of, among other things, the robot in question.
Councilor Fournier asked what sort of maintenance would be required to avoid needing to replace the robot again for the foreseeable future. The City Manager was evidently unprepared for the question, and began to promise an update, but as it happens Councilor Bullett had been doing her homework. She stepped in to clarify that the city had maintained the robot effectively for 18 years, noted the family of models which it comes from, and even explained that the robot’s age had begun to cause compatibility issues with the most recent software. Thankful for Bullett’s preparedness, (which truly was to a degree uncommon for councilors,) the council approved the grant unanimously.
With all unfinished business cleared, the City Council took up new orders. The first of these was Order 114, approving an amendment to the agreement with the nonprofit Portland Parks Conservancy, concerning the construction of the Portland Harbor Common. Jack Phillips, chief of the Conservancy, stepped forward to introduce the amendment, briefly sharing the five-year old organization’s history of dedication to raising money and organizing initiatives to improve the parks in Portland.
Phillips explained that the amendment would authorize the Conservancy to offer potential donors the privilege of having their name or logo engraved on signs, plaques, or similar displays. This, it was hoped, would encourage significant donations from private individuals and businesses towards the completion of the park.
Steven Scharf, regular public commenter, enthusiastically supported the order, and further suggested that a plaque be dedicated to the federal taxpayers contributing $2.5 million to the park project, on equal terms as the other contributors. Scharf also asked that the plan for the park should incorporate public input for the design, which he said had been seriously lacking in the process hitherto, and for the City Council to have the final say on how it will look. Manager West replied to Mr. Scharf, explaining that there are planned multiple public hearings during which the public will be able to weigh in on the design of the park.
Councilor Fournier expressed her desire to ensure under-represented minorities are included in the acknowledgement process. She stated that she wants people who give even small donations to be able to get on plaques, not just people with “$100,000 gifts, but $5 gifts, $20 gifts, because the more people you’re able to engage,” the more “shared ownership” the park will represent.
Phillips responded to this concern, stating that “everyone will be able to participate this, not just big donors.” He then quickly added, however, “We need big donors.” Not contented, Fournier responded: “Not all plaques or signage needs to be for $100,000 donors… As someone elected by $5 donations, I really want to make sure we’re recognizing at all levels people can give.”
Despite this unresolved tension, the order moved to unanimous approval with no further comment.
Next, the two orders (115 and 116) establishing the Homeless Opportunities for People in Encampments (H.O.P.E.) program, as explained in detail in the Townsman’s weekend article, were introduced. In summary, the program would take about $250,000 in funds away from those earmarked for affordable housing construction, and instead hire one new landlord liaison to work for the city. It would also pay an unspecified private nonprofit to hire three “housing navigators” to help those remaining shelter-resistant homeless individuals still in the encampments obtain permanent housing.
The program, announced on short notice and intended to be passed without the customary period of review, was initially added to the Council’s agenda without any of the supporting documentation. On the morning of that Monday, these documents were uploaded to the agenda portal for the public to review in the hours which remained before the meeting.
City Manager West introduced the two items, noting that it was MaineHousing who devised and proposed the H.O.P.E. model, shedding light on what had been a mystery in the program’s origins. Alerted to objections to the program, she explained that H.O.P.E. would be a pilot program, “It’s only there for one year,” and that the Portland taxpayer would not be obligated to continue paying for the program should be be found unsatisfactory.
The first procedural step, according to the rules of the council, was to vote to waive the customary second-reading of the order and allow for immediate implementation. “Our partners,” said West, referring to the State of Maine’s housing authority, “would really like to get this off the ground as soon as possible.” Dion attempted to move to a vote, expecting merely a pro forma motion, but there was immediate dissent from the council.
Rodriguez objected to the hasty motion, asking the City Manager to more thoroughly explain why this was necessary to pass tonight. “I have an email directly from the state,” West began, “As you know, the wheels of government sometimes turn slowly.” She smiled, and explained that the process of hiring can take time, and so every minute counts. Councilor Ali noted that he and other councilors had received letters from constituents, concerned that passage as an emergency doesn’t give them enough time to adequately understand the project. West again urged the council to pass the bill that night, somewhat confusingly saying that if the council didn’t vote now, that “It would be delayed, potentially, however many weeks it would take us to get up-and-running, and our next meeting is not until the 26th, so.”
Evidently willing to at least move on to the main discussion of the item, the decision to waive the second read for both items passed unanimously. This also meant that public comment could commence.
Terrence Miller, Advocacy Director at Preble Street, spoke first, stating that the H.O.P.E. program represents a “crucial component” which the city lacks. “[It’s] one of those long-term solutions,” he elaborated, to eliminating homelessness in Portland. He also added that Preble Street “intends to work as a sub-contractor” using program funds, if approved.
Jim Hall expressed some early concerns, but ultimately stated that “It’s easier to pay a landlord than a developer.” He urged the council to support H.O.P.E.
Cullen Ryan, of Community Housing of Portland, explained that “Housing is very hard to find,” but that “‘housing navigators’ are the secret.” Countering an earlier claim from city staff, he said he wasn’t aware of anyone from the HSC who got into permanent housing, but with housing navigators to help them, he knew of people who went straight from encampments to housing.
Sarah Michniewicz stepped up to ask whether the program would apply strictly to those in encampments or, as she would prefer, to cover all homeless people. She also wondered why this doesn’t help people who are in housing but at risk of losing it. “You might as well light the money on fire” if the city doesn’t care about keeping people in housing, she said. No other commenters were present in chambers.
“What’s the key to a successful housing placement, post-shelter?” Mayor Dion asked, opening a period of clarifying questions. Aaron Geyer, from the city’s HHS department, responded: “It’s the relationship which we build, and the follow-up services which we offer.” A landlord liaison would “fulfill and nurture” the relationship between the shelter staff and landlords, as well as continuing the relationship between shelter staff and the new tenant, to ensure that conflicts are smoothed over.
He and City Manager West both explained, in response to Michniewicz, that while the H.O.P.E. program wouldn’t be helping people who already have housing, even if unstable, other city and state programs already exist to help such people.
Councilor Bullett thanked the staff members and, first and foremost, indicated her support. But, she went on, “I always am wary of funding social worker positions which are just focused on helping people survive,” and prefers to make more productive investments. She also wondered how the city planned to hold the private nonprofits accountable for the approximately $300,000 in cash the city would be giving them. “Weekly huddles and meetings,” Geyer said, would be held with the nonprofits. The city would be charged with overseeing the project in general, but the bulk of the work would be done by the subcontracted nonprofits. Bullett also asked whether people living in vehicles would count for the program, to which Geyser said “yes,” they’d likely have “flexibility” in interpreting who qualifies for assistance this way.
Councilor Phillips brought up the issue of taking funds away from the Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, which is for building affordable housing, and spending it on unrelated new services. “I know there are a lot of [construction] projects out there,” she stated, which want to take advantage of the fund to build housing. She asked about the balance available for the fund. Manager West replied that the fund’s current balance was approximately $7.4 million, and that $6.9 million was being currently requested by applicants. Of the remaining half-million, about $230,000 would be spent on this project, leaving about $0.3 million.
Councilor Sykes, piggybacking on Phillips’ question, objected to the “fast and furious” nature of this proposal. “My concerns really center around the use of the Housing Trust Fund. There are clear guidelines on how to use this,” referring to the rules of the fund which say the purpose of it is to “create housing, long-term, rather than hire people” for other social services. “This is a big concern… I really bristle at the idea of using these funds for anything else.” Raising the possibility of spending Duson funds on large-scale housing projects, she continued: “I have a big passion for creating social housing, and every bit we take from [the fund], we take away from that.” Sykes was concerned that the city was “bailing people out all the time, and never actually solving the problem.”
City Manager West explained “We saw it as such a unique need to address housing in, in a different way.” She again urged the council to appreciate the state’s role in providing funds for the program too, and that Augusta wanted this done as soon as possible.
“We talked a lot about shelter-first,” Mayor Dion began with his perspective, “I think this initiative is a chance to talk about ‘Housing Now.’” Deflecting some of the council’s concerns, the mayor stated: “I received some very intelligent critiques about why we shouldn’t touch the funds.” Nevertheless, he continued, “If we don’t get it quite right, we get to reconsider… We’re not obligating our taxpayers to a recurring cost.”
He brought up the issue of cost, and the “horrible hypo math” of simply dividing the total cost by the 45 people the program aims to house. Dion said he understood the money might not make much difference, and that it may be setting a negative precedent for directing money away from housing construction, but that ultimately: “I’m willing to take that risk and will be voting in the affirmative.”
Councilor Fournier commented on the fact that most of the material was only made available today, and that this lack of clarity likely contributed to public skepticism. Fournier also asked whether any money will be set aside for helping landlords deal with damage to units done by troubled tenants placed by the program; she also suggested a “landlord support line” so that if something is “going awry”, things can be handled before permanent damage is done or hard feelings are had. Irrespective of these concerns, she signaled her support.
Rodriguez, too, signaled his support. He asked staff whether they had already identified any landlords which would participate in the program. While Manager West said they hadn’t specifically, Geyer said that he knew multiple landlords who he believed would happily take the money in exchange for housing the campers.
Councilor Phillips grimly began her comment by acknowledging “We don’t have a lot of housing.” She asked Geyer about “our partnership with landlords, with social workers outside the city?” She emphasized that she didn’t want to force anyone out, but given the reality of the situation, it seems like many people would consider taking options outside city limits. And if they do leave, she asked, what is the continuing relationship and obligation we have with them? Geyer said he knows a lot of potential partners, even as far as Lewiston-Auburn or Rumford, who would participate.
Councilor Bullett signaled her support, and again talked about how excellent the ECRT after-action report was. “Spending money on H.O.P.E. is preventative” she said, citing the cost of encampment clearance. Trevorrow thanked the staff behind the program and said she would support it as well. Ali thanked the staff, and said that the public often urges the city to work with the state; “This is it.”
Wrapping up the conversation which had ambled awkwardly towards consensus, Mayor Dion shared that “One of the advantages of being the mayor is that you’re actually here all the time.” He thanked the City Manager who he had seen work hard at this program in cooperation with the state. It passed unanimously as an emergency.
Asylum Seeker Funds from Augusta
The last order to be voted on that evening, 117, concerned the acquisition of $364,000 from the state of Maine to support asylum seekers in Portland. An equivalent amount of funds had previously been received from federal FEMA grants, but as this money was clamped down on in Washington, Portland needed more help to continue housing and feeding the asylum seekers it had received. Portland’s government chose to stop counting the number of asylum seekers the city was receiving in June, but based on estimates from nonprofit sources, at least 2,000 arrived in 2023 alone.
Asylum seekers arrive in the United States by crossing the southern border or otherwise gaining entry to the country, and they then formally claim they are unable to return to their country of origin for fear of persecution. As asylum claimants have overwhelmed the nation’s immigration courts, newly-arriving asylum seekers receive court dates in 2028 and 2029, when their application claim will be adjudicated, (usually ending in failure for claimants.) Until then, under federal law, they are permitted to remain in the country. Refugees and asylees, though commonly confused with asylum seekers, are a distinct legal class of permanent immigrants whose claims have already been verified by a United States magistrate.
These $364,000 in funds from MaineHousing would, as Manager West introduced the order, fill in for the lack of federal funds, and allow the city to continue “helping asylum seekers reach self-sufficiency” by retaining the culturally-attuned social workers serving them. This too, would be passed as an emergency with second readings waived.
The Preble Street representative, Terrence Miller, spoke in favor of this order as well, emphasizing the importance of “ensuring this vulnerable population has access to services and resources… It is impossible to imagine this population not existing.” Charles Mugabe, Director of Migration at Catholic Charities Maine, one of the largest support networks of asylum seekers, supported the order as well. He thanked Portland for its efforts in caring for the asylum seeker community, noting as an example the opening of the Expo as a shelter for the migrants. Cullen Ryan, too, briefly concurred and urged passage.
Councilor Phillips signaled her eager support for receiving the money, stating “I ran the refugee resettlement program for Portland for a very long time.” Though her program was closed in 2016, she said it was clear that the need didn’t go away. Councilor Bullett agreed, and stated that “This is the city of Portland and the state of Maine filling in for a federal failure.” She wants Maine’s federal delegation to urge more help from D.C. Ali also signaled support, and Mayor Dion thanked the state for extending a hand in cooperation.
The order passed unanimously as an emergency.
First reads ensued, and the council adjourned at 7:44 PM.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of the Portland Townsman, with work focusing on the mechanics of local government and housing policy, and also a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board. You can reach Ashley personally at email@example.com