Asylum Seekers protested outside the Portland Expo on Wednesday morning, complaining about living conditions and expressing anxiety over where they will go when the building’s makeshift shelter closes on Aug. 16.
The crowd returned inside just before 10 a.m. to speak with the city manager, the mayor and the director of health and human services.
Johnny Francisco, 18, from Angola said he left his home in January and has been living at the Expo since it opened. Conditions inside, he said, aren’t good. He’s concerned about the health of people, including pregnant women, inside.
“The problem is that we’re not sleeping in good conditions here. There are pregnant women there and sick people here. And also they are giving us expired foods,” Francisco said.
Francisco also indicated that some of the food being served in the expo was expired and had sickened people.
Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services, disputed the protesters’ claims that they were being served spoiled food.
“We serve three meals a day,” Dow said. “There might have been a loaf of expired bread that was donated. We work with a lot of donated food.”
City Manager Danielle West said after a private listening session inside the Expo there were no easy solutions to the statewide-housing crunch affecting current residents and newcomers alike.
“We’re working with the state and continuing to try and find solutions,” she said, “But we don’t want to give any false hope.”
As of June 5, there were 88 asylum-seeking families still living at the Expo.
After Aug. 16, a building on Riverside Industrial Parkway will be rehabbed into a 180-bed emergency shelter for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers protested Wednesday over conditions inside the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo, as well as raised concerns about what happens to them when the shelter there closes in August. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
City leaders hope this will not only give them a place to stay but help reduce homeless encampments around the city.
The city will run shelter operations for the first 18 months, with the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition taking over after that.
The coalition said 80 percent of the people staying at the nearby Homeless Services Center are asylum seekers.
West said the city was glad to hear from the asylum seekers about their concerns.
“We were happy to hear from them,” West said. “They expressed all of their concerns. We listened, took it in.”
A woman checks her phone while sheltering from the rain outside the Portland Expo on Wednesday morning, while a pregnant woman looks at her phone inside. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
But before leaving the Expo, West reiterated that housing asylum seekers should not be the city’s problem alone.
“We need more help from our surrounding communities,” she said. “We need more help from the state. We need more help from the federal government. We’ve consistently asked for that.”
CBS 13 contributed to this report.