Asylum-seekers are given instructions upon arriving at the Portland Expo Center, April 10, 2023, in Portland, Maine. On Thursday, June 29, the largest city in Maine asked Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to either relocate hundreds of unhoused asylum seekers to college dormitories — or to activate the National Guard and to open an emergency shelter, since the city is closing a temporary gymnasium shelter in about six weeks. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Since late May, rumors have been circulating about the former Unity College campus becoming transitional housing for asylum seekers.

On June 29, a proposal was finally submitted by Portland officials to the state. Since then, more questions have arisen as Portland pushes for a decision and town and college officials wait for a detailed proposal from the state.

Here’s what we know about the plan for housing asylum seekers on the Unity Environmental University campus.

What’s happening with Unity Environmental University’s campus in Unity?

Unity Environmental University has transitioned to primarily online education options since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While enrollment has shot up, only a few dozen students are currently living on campus, according to university officials.

The college campus located in the small Maine town of Unity, with a population around 2,300, is being considered as a potential spot to provide transitional housing for as many as 600 asylum seekers currently living in Portland.

A proposal submitted to the state last month stresses an immediate need for housing options as the number of asylum seekers living at shelters in Portland continues to rise, and a major emergency shelter is set to close in mid-August. The answer, officials said, could be to use empty college dorms at the Unity Environmental University– formerly Unity College — to house asylum seekers and relieve pressure on the city’s overflowing homeless shelters.

Who wants to use it for housing for asylum seekers?

Portland officials and immigration advocates support the idea. They say the existing infrastructure is a solid basis to provide immediate relief to Portland by converting the largely unoccupied dorms and pre-equipped dining facilities into transitional housing.

The Portland mayor and city manager called on the Mills administration last Thursday to support the proposal or to authorize the National Guard to set up another emergency shelter for asylum seekers. A spokesman for the governor told the Associated Press the office was not considering calling the National guard.

What has been proposed?

The Greater Portland Council of Governments submitted the proposal to MaineHousing and the governor’s office on June 12 to provide transitional housing at the Unity Environmental University campus for as many as 600 asylum seekers

Belinda Ray, the council’s director of strategic partnerships, says the goal is to reduce pressure on Portland’s already overflowing shelters and provide stable housing and services for up to at the Unity campus location.

What is the August deadline?

City officials opened the doors of the Portland Expo center in April as a temporary emergency shelter to house the increasing number of asylum seekers arriving in Portland earlier this year.. But city officials set a goal for Aug. 16 to close the shelter in order to honor the center’s fall event schedule.

Around 270 asylum seekers are currently housed there and will be in immediate need of new shelter. Last week, some asylum seekers protested conditions at the emergency shelter.

What needs to happen for Unity College to be used for housing for asylum seekers?

Before any asylum seekers would be brought to Unity, city and state officials, as well as Unity town representatives and officials from the university, need to get together to discuss the proposal further, Ray said.

University and town officials have said they haven’t received a formal proposal from the state.

Another key part of making it work is ensuring that services like transportation, legal aid and dining are all able to be provided at the campus with minimal impact to the town, Ray said. Although Portland’s Aug. 16 deadline is fast approaching, Ray hopes a decision can be made before then.

“I would love to see this move as quickly as possible, understanding that it can only be successful if we do ensure these resources are on site … so that the impact on the town is minimal,” she said

How much would it cost?

The estimated cost for providing transitional housing for the next year is around $7.8 million, which covers leasing the buildings and providing meals, utilities and other services, officials from the Greater Portland Council of Governments said.

Who would pay for it?

Any decision to allocate funding for the transitional housing project would ultimately be made by MaineHousing, the state agency overseeing affordable housing options, said Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for the governor’s office.

Has this ever been done before?

Although similar ideas have been discussed in the past, Ray says the state hasn’t ever done something like this before. But now that it’s on the table, she said other universities in Maine and around the country that have shifted toward remote learning may want to consider it.

“Many colleges have increased remote participation, not all of them have had all of their population return to campus,” Ray said. “There’s a housing crisis, so anywhere we can find housing is useful.”

Is Unity Environmental University on board with this plan?

The university administration isn’t opposed to the idea, but they’re still waiting on a plan from the state.

“Unity Environmental University is willing to help if there is a proper plan in place with the state, town and advocacy groups,” said university President Melik Peter Khoury.

The college is in a unique position where “the majority of our students choose distance learning,” Khoury said, and low residency means the school does have “underutilized capacity and infrastructure that could be used as transitional housing.”

But for now, Khoury said it would be premature to make any decisions without a concrete plan laid out for the school.

What is Unity’s stance on the proposal?

Town representatives said in the past they are waiting for a full, detailed proposal on the potential plan. Some community members raised concerns at selectboard meetings that an influx of new residents would potentially put strain on the town, but Unity still hasn’t heard anything from the state, according to Selectman Tony Avila.

Who makes the ultimate decision on this?

The state is still reviewing the proposal, Goodman said, and there isn’t a clear timeline on when a final decision will be announced.

What happens next?

For now, the state is continuing to review the proposal, the governor’s spokesperson said.

If this is to move forward, there will need to be an agreement between the state, the university and the town of Unity, Ray said.

“If this is done right, if we get all of these resources in place, this is a great opportunity for these new Mainers coming to our state, it’s a great opportunity for Unity and it’s a great opportunity for the state of Maine,” Ray said.

Braeden Waddell is a reporter covering Belfast and Waldo County. He grew up in Waldoboro and joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after working as an associate producer for National Public Radio. He graduated...