Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va.m Aug. 27, 2021. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AP

New refugees and asylum seekers in Portland have to navigate the city’s housing market and its rising costs.

For refugees, a resettlement application begins with receiving an extensive background check into matters from their criminal to their medical histories. The whole process takes around two years. Once approved, they may settle in Maine for numerous factors.

Officials will often send them to communities where they have close family, said Charles Mugabe, director of case management for Catholic Charities Maine’s Refugee & Immigration Services program. If family members are not in the U.S., they usually try to settle refugees in locations where there is a strong community culture with those of the same ethnic background.

Catholic Charities is one of two agencies in Maine that assists with refugee resettlement, along with the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, also based in Portland. The latter was approved by the Department of State amid ongoing efforts to settle new Afghan refugees coming into the United States after the Taliban took power in the country in August 2021.

Before arriving in the Portland area, Catholic Charities facilitates short-term housing as they find them a long-term location. If a family member lives nearby, the refugees usually stay with them as they look for long-term housing. If that is not the case, Catholic Charities finds alternative housing. For example, many of the recent Afghan refugees stayed temporarily in hotels.

Next comes what may be the most difficult part: finding a place for those being settled long term. It’s a step that has only grown more hard with the rapidly rising cost of housing in the Portland area, Mugabe said.

Though he acknowledged it took time to build relationships with local landlords, he said his organization resettled over 260 people so far in fiscal year 2022.

“That was a challenging process to be honest,” Mugabe said. “At the moment, not only Portland, but [apartments in] cities like Westbrook, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Augusta have gone extremely high, to the point where it is nearly unaffordable.”

Usually with no sources of income because they just arrived in the U.S., most of those being resettled rely on state or federal housing assistance.

Though it took time, he said the Afghan resettlement had generally been successful. Close to 90 percent who had come had been placed in their own apartments. The majority are in the Portland metropolitan area, but others were settled in Augusta and Lewiston, Mugabe said.

An integral part of long-term housing is building partnerships with local organizations and landlords, an effort he said is ongoing. Still, he said he has been proud of how many in the community had made an effort to help those in need.

“Mainers are stepping up to support the arrivals,” Mugabe said.