Safe in Maine: How Sustainable Transitional Housing can turn Challenges into Opportunities
Haley Castle-Miller, Economic Opportunity Fellow, describes how Maine has the opportunity to fill gaps in the workforce by creating a more sustainable transitional housing system for asylum seekers through the Safe in Maine Fund.
In 2019, Portland received the first big wave of asylum seekers that overwhelmed the shelter system. The City of Portland was tasked with finding creative solutions to provide temporary housing for about 450 asylum seekers. The Portland Expo was filled with cots, and some local families hosted newcomers in their homes. Since then, asylum seekers have continued to arrive to Portland in increasing numbers, leading Portland to utilize hotels in the region in order to expand capacity and meet shelter needs.As of May, of this year, there were over 1,000 asylum seekers being housed in Portland shelters and hotels across the Greater Portland region. On May 5th, 2022, the City of Portland issued a press release announcing that it had reached capacity and could no longer promise housing for asylum seeking families. Since then, it has been much harder to track the number of asylum seekers arriving to Southern Maine.
While utilizing hotel space for housing was a necessary intervention, it is not a sustainable solution. In March, it was reported that the City had spent $3.6 million since December in order to house folks in hotels.As part of the Covid-19 Emergency Declaration, thefederal government has been funding non-congregate care for emergency shelters. Up until July 1st of this year, these funds covered the full cost of hotel emergency housing. On July 1st, the federal government rolled back these funds to cover 90% of the cost, making it more expensive for Portland to sustain.It is impossible to know when the federal government will withdraw the funding altogether. It could happen with little notice and whenever the Covid-19 Emergency Declaration ceases to exist, so will the funding for non-congregate emergency shelter care. Without federal support, the costs would be unbearable. Since the funding is unreliable, it is imperative to find a more sustainable option.
The current system of emergency housing is not only costly, but inefficient.Asylum seekers living in hotels are scattered across multiple locations in a variety of municipalities, which makes it more challenging for service providers to efficiently reach them all (note: asylum seekers are not legally allowed to drive, which makes it challenging for them to reach services). They do not have adequate access to kitchen space to make food.There is a level of uncertainty that rooms will be available, sometimes requiring families to move to a new municipality, which has the potential to cause a transportation issue, particularly for children who might need to travel far distances to attend the school they were already enrolled in. Given all these factors, it seems that there must be a better solution for all involved.
The Safe in Maine Fund was launched on June 30, 2022, to raise money to support transitional housing. A transitional housing campus would be ideal because it would allow families to have their own space in modular, quick-build homes, while living in a community with access to services, similarly to how a college campus is structured. It would be a more financially sustainable option, as the cost would be fixed at a monthly rate rather than the hotel rate, which averages $240 per night. It would provide reliable housing for asylum seekers, which could be repurposed for other needs in years to come. The goal of this initiative is to collaborate regionally and create a cost-sharing mechanism so that any given municipality does not bear the full cost, regardless of the campus location. With improved access to services, transitional housing stays are expected to decrease, making it easier for new families to integrate into the community. It would vastly improve the system, making it more organized, secure, and financially sustainable.
This project is based in the hope that Maine can be a safe and welcoming place for new arrivals to build a new life. As the world faces new and ongoing conflict, climate disasters, and the global health crisis brought on by COVID-19, the number of displaced people has reached an all-time high. On May 23, 2022, UNHCR announced that the number of displaced people has surpassed 100 million, an unimaginable metric never seen before.
At the same time that the world is grappling with how to support millions of displaced people, Maine is experiencing a dwindling workforce and could greatly benefit from welcoming international arrivals. In 2019, Maine had the highest population of people aged 65+ of all states in the country, with Baby Boomers representing 27.4% of the population in Maine. By 2028, the Baby Boomer generation will be age 64-82 years old, which is fully outside the primary working age bracket. It is important to build and retain new members of the workforce that can replace this generation of workers. In order to do this, demographic data implies that Maine is reliant on immigration, both domestic and international. The New York Times accessed a 2017 draft report from the Department of Health and Human Services, which was the first comprehensive data on the economic impact of asylees and refugees. The findings showed undeniable evidence that refugees and asylees are beneficial to the economy, particularly through tax revenue. Maine has an opportunity to be part of the solution to a global humanitarian crisis, while meeting the state’s need to replenish the workforce.
At this point, the project has received donationsfrom Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth as well as numerous individuals.There is a lot more work to do, money to raise, and wrinkles to be ironed out, but a solid vision is in place to create a sustainable system that works better for everyone.
Haley grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned her bachelor's degree in Peace Studies and Spanish from Goucher College and continued her education at Arcadia University, where she received her master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Through her studies, she became interested in alternative economic policies and creative ways to redistribute wealth and resources. She is excited to expand her knowledge and cultivate creativity in her position as the Economic Opportunity Fellow. The Resilience Corps is an exciting opportunity to collaborate with others to build a more equitable and welcoming city for everyone. Haley is also looking forward to hiking, spending time at the beach, and exploring the Greater Portland Region.