Two executives from Catholic Charities Maine joined a panel discussion this week hosted by Refugees International and the Women’s Refugee Commission to discuss how the nonprofit works to resettle refugees and asylum seekers in the state.
Catholic Charities has been doing refugee resettlement work since 1975, and is one of three agencies in Maine that are approved to resettle refugees in the state, alongside Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS) and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.
In early October, the three resettlement agencies announced that they had been approved to resettle double the amount of refugees in fiscal year 2024 (FY24) than they did in FY23.
Catholic Charities Maine received $29.7 million in contributions in 2021, according to the most recent public version of the organization’s Form 990 tax filing.
Of that funding, $13.6 million came from government payments and $7 million came from Medicaid, a taxpayer-funded medical welfare program.
Per that 2021 tax filing, CEO Stephen Letourneau made more than $170,000, dentist Meredith L. Davis-Pound made roughly $144,000, and orthodontist Burton L. Rankle made more than $215,000.
Refugees are a distinct migrant population from asylum seekers, as refugees must acquire approval prior to entering and residing in the U.S., and are immediately granted work authorization upon being extended status as a refugee.
Asylum-seeking migrants, however, may enter the country and have a pending asylum application that takes years to adjudicate, and are not authorized to work in the U.S. for a period of 150 days following the filing of their asylum application.
Julie Allaire, Chief Program Officer at Catholic Charities Maine, described to the panel how in July 2022, Catholic Charities launched a pilot program at the behest of the state for transitional housing for “asylum-seeking families.”
“It is adapted based on our best practices on refugee resettlement,” Allaire said. “And the idea was really to test a purpose-built model of case management, coordinated services, and housing.”
“We created and are running this pilot, the state funds the contract, and the City of Portland’s General Assistance office determines eligibility for participation in the program,” she said.
“And what’s unusual in Maine is that asylum seekers are eligible for General Assistance,” Allaire explained.
General Assistance is a form of voucher-based welfare that is administered by municipal governments but funded mostly through state tax revenues.
“So as the General Assistance budgets were under more pressure due to growing unhoused populations, the state was looking for ways to take pressure off this budget, and that’s where this idea evolved from,” she said.
Allaire said that at the time of the launch of their 2022 pilot program, “asylum-seeking families” comprised the “largest portion of the unhoused population” in Maine.
The Catholic Charities executive outlined the funding model of the transitional housing program, in which the state provides funds via contracts with Catholic Charities, hotels, and a “large network” of contracts with other organizations which provide various services to migrant families.
Joanna Testa, program director at Catholic Charities Maine, then described the process asylum seekers go through when they enter into the organization’s transitional housing program.
“As soon as families arrive from the City of Portland, whether from overflow shelters or other overflow placements,” Testa explained, “they have some of their belongings inspected in an educational process with our residential staff to examine whether or not there may be any bugs that are being brought into the facility.”
“We try to eliminate that before people are actually brought in,” she said, adding that they “do some education” with the asylum seekers on proper food storage.
Following the inspection, Catholic Charities does a “rules orientation,” by introducing the migrant families to “some of the U.S. law around the supervision and discipline of children as well as domestic violence episodes.”
This is done, Testa explained, so that the migrants “have that information right from the beginning and understand what the expectations of shelter are” in the facility.
Catholic Charities then works with the migrant families to maximize the amount of taxpayer-funded welfare the families receive.
That effort includes determining their eligibility and to signing them up for various welfare programs, including General Assistance, medical assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Program (SNAP) a.k.a. Food Stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
The organization also does on-site school and English language class registration for migrant families, as well as partnering with the Maine Center for Disease Control to make sure the children have all vaccinations needed for public school attendance.
Additionally, Catholic Charities connects the migrant families with volunteer attorneys to aid them in correctly filing their asylum applications, helps them to apply for work authorization 150 days after filing their asylum application, and works with “housing navigation partners” to find permanent housing for the migrant families.