Portland’s decision to stop guaranteeing all new asylum-seeking families placement in emergency housing has some neighboring communities concerned about the impact the steady influx of newcomers could have on them, and has led to more urgent calls for statewide and regional collaboration.
In South Portland last week, City Manager Scott Morelli told city council that South Portland could end up spending between $4.1 million and $17.5 million on general assistance after reimbursement by the state. The city’s budget proposal currently calls for $1.2 million for general assistance.
“There is no doubt that there will be some impact. We just have to figure out what it is,” Morelli said.
Portland said earlier this month that rather than continuing to guarantee emergency housing for new families arriving in the city, it would give families general assistance vouchers to find housing on their own. The policy applies to all families, although the vast majority are asylum seekers.
This means that after 30 days, if a family that originally arrived in Portland ended up finding housing in another community, that community would be responsible for paying for their general assistance.
Right now, Portland is home to record numbers of people each night — about 1,750 on average — and that number has been steadily rising over the past few months.
“This is really a regional issue, if not a state issue,” said Danielle West, acting city manager of Portland. “It’s hard for everyone. We are all trying to find ways to deal with it. The impacts of that, I feel for (other communities) because we also experience them regularly and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk about it.
In Yarmouth, one of half a dozen communities where Portland is currently housing people in hotel rooms, City Manager Nat Tupper said officials are sorting out the city’s legal rights and obligations regarding general assistance. and reflected on how to meet the challenge facing the region.
“I am unable to comment on the future costs and liability burden of asylum seekers placed in municipalities outside the city limits of Portland,” Tupper said in an email. “It is safe to guess that it is very expensive and inefficient to place asylum seekers in hotels or other scattered emergency accommodation.
“Clearly Portland’s burden has been untenable and unfair, and the options are very limited. I suspect one thing everyone can agree on is that the state government needs to take a bigger and more active role.
In South Portland, Morelli said general assistance costs could raise the city’s tax rate by about 5.6% to 23.8%, in addition to a 5.8% increase. property tax that council is already considering.
But he said his city needs more time to determine the extent of the impact of Portland’s new policy.
“We’re just starting to get information and plan to have a lot more information for the city council at their May 24 workshop,” Morelli said. “The situation could be completely different by then depending on whether other sources of funding are available. We will return every stone we can to seek sources of funding other than property taxes.
Portland is housing people in a number of South Portland hotels — and city officials have said they will continue to pay the costs associated with people they have already placed in those hotels.
Morelli said South Portland must now calculate how many people with Portland Vouchers are likely to seek emergency shelter themselves in hotels or elsewhere in South Portland.
“We have the most hotels of any community that have been ready to step in and help provide space for those who have not been housed,” Morelli said. “Certainly people know that (and might look for accommodation here).”
In Westbrook, Director of General Support and Social Services Harrison Deah said Portland’s decision is likely to have little impact because the city only uses one hotel there to house people. . “The new policy would, however, have a significant impact on surrounding communities with many hotels accepting GA vouchers,” Deah said in an email.
Portland, of course, is also preparing for significant increases in general support costs in the coming year. But city officials say the policy change — which also takes away the promise the city can help incoming families find housing — was not driven by budget concerns.
“It’s a staff decision,” Mayor Kate Snyder said. “It’s a capability-based decision. … We’ve been tracking reimbursements and advocating for 90% (general assistance reimbursement) from the state, so of course we’re tracking all of that, but it wasn’t a budget decision. Does it really have to do with the availability of staff to deliver the services they provided? »
Portland officials said they understand the policy change could impact other communities, but it also brings Portland into line with how many of those other communities administer General Assistance.
“We’re not going to do this beyond that anymore,” West said. “I don’t see it as cost shifting, I see it as administering general assistance according to state law and trying to do it in a way that will be helpful to those families and by trying to manage it with the staff we have and the limited resources we have.
West said the city has started giving vouchers to families to find housing on their own since it announced it would do so earlier this month and is working with community partners like Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to try to get them all available outside services and help. .
“Some families came in and we used that process,” West said. “It’s not perfect, but we’re working on it and have been very grateful for all the help we’ve received from our partners as well as surrounding communities.”
At present, the general assistance money Portland spends on the roughly 1,750 people it houses is reimbursed by the state and federal governments – but West said the city must provide the money in advance and the federal government may be slow to process refunds.
West said it’s too early to tell what impact the voucher distribution will have on the city’s budget, which currently includes a 5.5% increase in the cityside tax rate as well as a unresolved budget gap of $2 million and is based on the number of people the city is housing housing at this time.
It is possible that Portland, South Portland and other communities facing an increased need for emergency housing may be able to access federal funds to offset some of the costs, even if the current 100% reimbursement of emergency housing costs related to COVID by the federal government is expected. leave in July.
On Friday, the office of U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree said President Biden signed a bill in March providing a minimum 90% share of federal costs for public assistance programs, including emergency housing, authorized under emergency declarations made in 2020 or 2021, including a declaration that remains in place for COVID-19.
Portland officials said Friday they were operating on the assumption that they would have no more federal funding after July and that any change to that assumption would be good news, but also wouldn’t solve all of their problems.
“It doesn’t change the ability to handle numbers,” Snyder said. “Staff capacity and accommodation capacity issues are still there.”
Snyder also said there are questions about whether the city’s current use of hotels and motels would be considered a COVID expense. “The use of hotels was certainly driven by COVID to allow for social distancing from a gathering setting,” Snyder said.
“But we are actively trying to move away from using hotels recognizing that they are an unsustainable solution to the problem of the need for emergency shelter. I don’t know whether or not the feds would determine that hotel shelters are COVID-related. I think we have a lot of questions to answer on this.