Portland City officials held a press briefing inside of the Portland Exposition Building after a protest Wednesday morning by migrants over the city’s lack of housing options and the shelter’s poor conditions blocked traffic briefly on Park Avenue.
Portland City Manager Danielle West, Mayor Kate Snyder and Portland Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Kristen Dow met with the Expo residents following the protest to hear their concerns and then took questions from the media.
According to WGME, the meeting was part of a deal brokered by Portland Police in which the protesters would leave the road in exchange for an audience with the top city officials.
Below is a video of the press briefing from WGME:
The migrants were protesting over concerns about finding housing options after they will be required to leave the Expo on Aug. 16, 2023.
Residents also said that they are unable to shower at the Expo, and that they have “no good food.”
“We were happy to hear from them, they expressed all of their concerns, we listened, we took it in,” City Manager Danielle West said.
“I do think there’s some things we need to address,” West said. “Some greater needs exist for housing, which I know everybody is aware of, it’s a need that’s around the State of Maine, we recognize that, we’re continuing to work with the state and [trying] to find solutions to that.”
“We don’t want to put any sort of false hope out there, but we are going to continue to work and try to strive to help them find the housing that they need over the coming months,” West added.
The City Manager said that the Expo is “very well managed” and that the “staff does a great job ensuring that all of the needs are met.”
When asked what specific issues city officials heard from the migrants, DHHS Director Dow said that one request was for “more culturally preferred food.”
“We have three meals a day that are brought in. Our food systems here in the Greater Portland area are stressed, they’re strained, and they would like some more culturally preferred food to be brought in,” Dow said.
“We have been working and we’ll continue to work with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and other organizations to try to get some more culturally preferred food,” she said.
Dow then addressed a question from one reporter asking about the “deplorable living conditions” at the Expo.
“Well, it’s an emergency shelter, but I also had little kids playing ball over on the side and they’re laughing and playing and running around, and that is always a heart-warming thing for me to see,” Dow said.
“When I think that this past winter when people were sleeping in chairs in the overflow space at the emergency shelter, this is a much better environment,” she said.
“I see a bunch of people who might not be fully happy with the situation and are afraid of what will happen on August 17th, but we are actively working every single day to try to help them,” she added.
One video shared on Twitter by WGME reporter Johnny Maffei shows migrant children participating in the protest by chanting and holding signs.
An adult protestor helped one of the children who was holding their sign upside-down.
“We are actively working on a variety of different solutions and we have housing navigators who are trying to work to find people housing,” Dow said. “Do I have a mass shelter that will be available on August 17th? No I do not.”
Dow and City Manager West said that DHHS and the Portland City Manager are working to restore the host homes program and to get people connected to transitional shelters.
West said she would “implore other communities to try to help [Portland] in any way possible” in response to a question about sending migrants to communities in northern Maine.
“We are continuing to work on a variety of solutions,” West said. “This building, as you know, is used in a lot of other ways, we have a lot of contractual obligations, there are a lot factors are at play that we think about.”
“Money is one piece, making sure that we have [enough] staff to help as well is another piece,” she said. “We’re thinking about all those different things and continuing to work on all of that with the state and other partners.”
City officials were unable to provide specifics figures on total cost the Expo has had on taxpayers.
“I don’t have the total [inaudible] with me,” DHHS Director Dow said.
“We spend a significant amount on our General Assistance line every budget year, but we can follow up with some numbers, with, like, specific numbers,” City Manager West said.
According to city officials, the recently approved $4.59 million shelter that will be built in the Riverton neighborhood will be for single asylum seekers, and will not help house the families staying at the Expo.
When asked if Portland stood by former Mayor Ethan Strimling’s request that the federal government send migrants to Portland, Mayor Kate Snyder said that “this is an entirely different situation than what we saw in 2019.”
“We are not unique when it comes to the struggles that we’re facing with the number of people that are coming over the border,” Snyder said. “What we’ve talked about with our Congressional delegation is, let’s make sure that we have capacity for people before they’re sent here and they’re outside.”
“So, we are trying to be very responsible in terms of our consistent communication with both state leadership and federal leadership,” she said. “The manager and I happened to be with a couple members of the Congressional delegation just yesterday, sharing the concerns about folks being sent to communities that may not have the sheltering or the other resources that are available to people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Kristen Dow was the state DHHS Director, she is the Portland DHHS Director.