MACHIAS — The Maine State Housing Authority is surveying organizations around the state, including the University of Maine at Machias, about the availability of transitional housing as the authority tries to help place hundreds of refugees who have come to Maine seeking asylum in the United States.
Margaret Nagle, spokeswoman for the University of Maine, said the university has responded to the request for information but there are no plans to house refugees at this time.
“Beyond the general inquiry about space availability, any proposals to consider transitional housing options at UMM would be communicated to the community and area leaders,” she said. “As one of Maine’s public universities, UMM has an ongoing commitment to help meet state and community needs.”
Last month, more than 300 asylum seekers arrived in Portland, most of whom were fleeing violence and political instability in the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Many are currently housed at the Portland Expo Center, which the city of Portland established as an emergency shelter. The city will close the center as a shelter Aug. 15 because of contractual obligations.
Cara Courchesne, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority, said the organization has been asked to help find available transitional housing.
“We have been asking community action agencies and public housing authorities and property managers and other folks if they know about available housing,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that Portland is a tight [housing] market and it’s expensive.”
Courchesne said the information the authority gathers about available space will be reported to Portland officials. She declined to speculate on where immigrant families might end up, including whether any are likely to be moved to sites in Hancock or Washington counties. However, she said she does not foresee an “en masse group of 75 families that go to one place.”
On June 28, Governor Janet Mills authorized the transfer of $172,303 from the Governor’s Contingent Account to the housing authority to provide temporary housing assistance to asylum seekers for up to 12 months, according to a news release issued by her office.
Courchesne said that although the authority would be providing assistance with those funds, it is not deciding where families will live.
“All we’re doing is making the connection,” she said. “We don’t have anything to do with the decisions.”
State Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias) contacted the university after seeing a widely shared July 23 Facebook post by a University of Maine at Machias employee that stated the university campus was “in discussion” about housing 50 to 75 refugee families. Tuell said the post was inaccurate.
“Were such a plan to move forward in any form, at any time, there would be community meetings,” Tuell posted. “Legislators and community leaders would be briefed about a plan and would be kept in the loop as things developed. Again, that is not the case, since there is no plan or proposal to house 50 to 75 refugee families in Machias. None.”
“It is a real shame that six weeks before the start of the new school year, people who should be focused on getting our college kids ready for the real world are having to waste their time dealing with unfounded Facebook rumors,” Tuell said.
The Portland Press Herald recently reported that some refugee families had turned down transitional housing, including at locations in Ellsworth, for a variety of reasons. Some refugees believed they could stay longer at the emergency shelter in Portland. Others feared relocating would mean they would be unable to keep appointments with immigration officials, potentially jeopardizing their chances of getting asylum.
However, immigrant community leaders said July 25 they made the situation clear to the families in question, and those families are willing to accept any housing offered to them, the Press Herald reported.