A child plays a game on a phone at the emergency shelter setup inside the Portland Expo building June 19, 2019.

Portland has received more than $900,000 in private donations to assist with the influx of asylum seeking families staying in the Expo, but long-awaited federal money could be on the way as soon as the first two weeks of September.

Working with the local chapter of United Way, the city has a week to apply for a newly available funding opportunity to assist and reimburse communities that have received an influx of asylum seekers since Jan. 1, 2019. Portland has processed 414 people since June 9, most of them asylum seekers from Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As part of the $4.6 billion immigration package that passed Congress last month, $30 million has been earmarked for Supplementary Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and disbursed to the national Emergency Food and Shelter Program, a department of the Federal Emergency Management Agency which was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, to distribute to qualifying local communities. Of that, $25 million is made specifically available to Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Maine is eligible for funding from the remaining $5 million.

[Portland considers how to spend $900,000 in donations for asylum seekers]

If awarded, the money would reimburse public and nonprofit social service organizations in Maine that have assisted with the care of asylum seekers, of which 264 are still staying in the Expo.

Since the law making emergency supplemental appropriations available was passed one month ago, state and city officials have been in the dark about the program’s funding formula, citing a fast-approaching July 31 deadline. Gov. Janet Mills wrote a letter to FEMA in early July seeking clarification. A reply came July 16 from Michael Lee, Chair of the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, saying that the department was “diligently reviewing the best options for disbursing Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance grant funds and is seeking to closely align the disbursement process to the existing guidelines of the [Emergency Food and Shelter] program.”

FEMA made the application available online Monday, July 28. It is due Monday, Aug. 5. Once received, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program’s national board has 30 days to distribute the funds. Allowing for some lag time for receipt of the application, Portland could receive funds as soon as the first two weeks of September.

A document articulating Emergency Food and Shelter Program guidelines states that the money could be used for or to reimburse previous expenses for food, shelter, lodging, rent, transportation, minimal repairs to shelter facilities and supplies and equipment necessary to feed or shelter people (up to a $300 limit per item).

[Community leaders blame housing confusion on ‘miscommunication’ as they hurry to place asylum seekers by deadline]

The Emergency Food and Shelter Program’s national board is chaired by FEMA with representatives from American Red Cross, Catholic Charities USA, The Jewish Federations of North America, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, The Salvation Army and United Way Worldwide.

Funding would be disbursed to a local board, comprised of United Way and delegates from local chapters of those organizations, and comparable ones if they don’t exist.

A FEMA spokesperson directed the BDN to the Public Affairs division. Multiple calls placed by the BDN were not answered this week, and the division’s voicemail was full. A spokesperson for United Way, which operates the Emergency Food and Shelter Program program, did not offer comment.

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