A proposal to house some of Portland’s growing number of asylum seekers at Unity Environmental University’s Quaker Hill campus is unlikely to happen — at least not by August as some officials had hoped.
Despite Portland’s self-imposed mid-August deadline to move asylum seekers from the Portland Expo where they have been housed, there are no concrete plans or funding in place and so far, there hasn’t been a meeting between all of the stakeholders impacted by the proposal. In fact, the first email communication between Unity and Portland officials only happened less than two weeks ago.
The Greater Portland Council of Governments organization has since requested to meet with the Unity Select Board or speak at one of the board’s meetings, but a final date hasn’t yet been set and the meeting won’t happen until at least September, said Tom Bell, the organization’s communications director. Unity officials want to see that meeting happen in public, not private.
While there was always a hope that the proposal would be approved by the time the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo was set to close, Bell said the organization will continue to pursue the proposal to eventually house some asylum seekers at the college in Unity. The organization’s overall plan to house asylum seekers at the college in Unity has been going on since before that emergency shelter even opened earlier this year, Bell said.
However, Unity town officials have repeatedly said they do not support the proposal at past Select Board meetings. They highlight concerns about the cost and responsibility that the town could be required to undertake to support an influx of asylum seekers, as well as expressing frustration over a lack of communication between Unity and Portland officials.
The governor’s office stated it was reviewing the proposal in early July, but has not made any further announcements on the status of the plan.
The first direct communication between the Greater Portland Council of Governments and town officials was an introductory email sent to the select board on July 17 by Belinda Ray, the council’s director of strategic partnerships, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request. That email came more than a month after the Portland group passed along a proposal to house asylum seekers at the college in Unity to the state government.
Unity Selectman Tim Parker Jr. told Ray the town board was not interested in meeting privately with the organization, and said at Unity’s most recent select board meeting that any conversation between the town and Portland officials should be held publicly.
Officials from the Greater Portland Council of Governments in June proposed housing asylum seekers at the Unity college campus to address the lack of space at Portland shelters and temporary housing. Portland’s Mayor and City Manager requested the state to approve the proposal in a June 29 letter to Gov. Janet Mills, saying the city plans to close temporary emergency housing opened at the Portland Expo on Aug. 16, potentially displacing hundreds of asylum seekers.
University President Melik Peter Khoury has maintained that the school is open to the idea of housing asylum seekers on its Quaker Hill campus, which only has a few dozen students housed on campus as the majority attend classes online. In past statements, Khoury said the school wouldn’t move forward until it sees a plan outlining how the process would work, with input from local and state officials as well as advocacy groups.