Samuel Marhegane and Marthe Tshov searched for months for an apartment in Portland after arriving in Maine with their young daughter last November.
The couple, who are asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, applied to more than 20 places, but most of the time they wouldn’t hear back or were denied. Twice they paid and lost fees responding to apartment listings that turned out to be scams.
“We were looking every day to find out if we could find any available apartment,” said Marhegane, 29. “It was very difficult – and even when we would find one, it was very expensive.”
Then the couple had a breakthrough. They found a two-bedroom apartment on the Port Property website and with the help of a nonprofit, Greater Portland Family Promise, were able to submit an application through Project HOME, which partners with landlords to create housing opportunities for people who might normally be screened out of the process.
They moved in last week.
“It was like a dream come true,” said Marhegane, sitting in an armchair in the living room of his new apartment in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood.
The family lived in three different hotels over the course of five months while searching for something more permanent. Their experience is typical for the city’s asylum seekers. Portland is providing emergency shelter right now in hotels and motels around the region to about 350 families, or 1,200 people, the vast majority asylum seekers from African countries.
Finding housing in the Portland area in the current market is a challenge for anyone, and asylum seekers face additional challenges. Many don’t speak English and are not able to work for months because of federal rules. They may encounter landlords who don’t return their calls or emails, won’t take General Assistance or require a credit history or co-signer who earns significantly more than the monthly rent, difficult asks for people new to the country.
Getting asylum seekers out of hotels and motels and placing them in permanent housing is key to alleviating the strain on city resources. It’s also a necessary step for asylum seekers to establish their lives here and become independent.
The combination of the current housing shortage and the large numbers of asylum-seeking families has city staff and community partners working harder than ever.
“Things were very different a year and a half ago,” said Michelle Lamm, executive director of Greater Portland Family Promise, which works to prevent homelessness and provide support for low-income families in need of stable housing. “There were a lot less families here and we were able to house families pretty quickly. Six months ago, we were saying it takes five to six months to find housing. Now we’re sadly saying seven to eight months. It’s just getting harder and harder to find housing.”
That makes Marhegane and Tshov exceptionally lucky – something they attribute to Lamm’s organization as well as the fact they speak English, which made the process much easier. Lamm attributes their success to their own hard work.
“They’re very articulate and educated and that’s how they ultimately hooked the apartment,” Lamm said. “A lot of the families, they don’t really know how to look. They don’t speak or read English. They don’t understand the process. They’re kind of sitting ducks until their name comes up on the list (of families to help.)”
FINDING AN APARTMENT
The city relies on community partners like Greater Portland Promise to help families staying at hotels and motels find more permanent housing. People find out about this nonprofit and others such as Hope Acts, Project HOME and Catholic Charities either through the resource packet the city gives them or by word of mouth – because such information travels quickly in the motels, said Chelsea Hoskins, the city’s resettlement coordinator.
Without outside agency help, a family would typically spend seven to eight months in a hotel or motel before a space opened up at the city’s Family Shelter and they got assigned a case manager. Then it could take as many as six months more to find permanent housing.
“There is a chance people are unhoused for upwards of a year in some cases,” Hoskins said.
At Greater Portland Family Promise, there are no specific requirements for families to meet in order to get assistance, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get. The nonprofit has a staff of just five employees and a waitlist of over 100 families.
When families are lucky enough to get to the top of the list, Family Promise works with them to find apartments with rents that fit within the limits of the General Assistance vouchers they receive. In Portland, that amount can range from around $1,150 to $2,650 a month, depending on the size of a family and limits set by the state. The nonprofit also helps families apply for benefits for which they are eligible, enroll their children in school, get food and clothing and find health care.
Even without tough requirements for renting, Lamm said, the general shortage of housing is a major problem.
“Housing is so sparse, landlords can always take a market-rate renter over someone who pays the General Assistance rate,” Lamm said. “They’re not motivated to rent to families that have GA because someone will pay the top dollar.”
One couple from Angola who are in the process of applying for asylum spent seven months living in the Quality Inn in South Portland before moving into an apartment in Westbrook earlier this month. John and Ndelela asked that their full names not be used because they are applying for asylum for political reasons and worry their family will not be safe if they are identified.
The stakes are high in their asylum case, said John, who is working with a lawyer paid for by a local church to finalize the claim. “For me personally it’s a capital case and for many people it’s a capital case, meaning it’s either live or die,” said John, 36. “If you are rejected and you are deported, you’re basically going to your deathbed, so it is a capital case.”
John and Ndelela have two children and were lucky at the Quality Inn to have a suite with a bedroom, living room, bathroom and tiny kitchen. They also speak English, which made their search for a permanent apartment easier, though it was hardly without challenges.
“As soon as I mentioned I am an immigrant and (am on) General Assistance, the door kind of closed,” John said. “It was very, very tough.”
He also said there’s a perception among some landlords that asylum-seeking families won’t stay long and are only on their way to Canada, where some asylum seekers have gone after Maine.
“Say I have a house and a new Mainer comes and wants to rent but only stays for a month and a half and then out of the blue they move on, that’s a problem,” John said. “I’m not going to want to rent to a new Mainer anymore, I would rather rent to a local. … That kind of brought our reputation down.”
‘IT WAS EXCITING’
John and Ndelela finally found a three-bedroom apartment in Westbrook on the website of Avesta Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing provider. They called Lamm to ask if Family Promise would be their guarantor. The apartment, for which they pay $1,500 a month, is clean and bright. They received donated furniture from another nonprofit, Furniture Friends, and have a view of a small park across the street.
“The first time in a different place was hard, but the next day it was exciting,” said Ndelela, 33. “I have my own kitchen, which is great, and my own personal space, which we didn’t have at the hotel. … It’s a whole different feeling of its own and it’s a beautiful space. The kids get to play outside in the sun and just enjoy being kids and being in one place all day.”
Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta, said the company houses hundreds of asylum-seeking families in Greater Portland. “We understand Maine’s labor shortage and the economic impact this population in particular provides, because we know they will fill many of the unfilled job opportunities quickly,” Totman said. “That makes us particularly attentive to trying to get these folks settled. Besides the humanistic side of it, there’s a real economic need for more people in the labor force.”
Marhegane and Tshov, the couple from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were thrilled to find their apartment in Parkside. Moving in this past week was a big milestone, they said during a visit with Lamm at their apartment. “I think it will be better here than where we were, in the hotels,” Marhegane said. “Here we can cook.”
“Michelle, thank you so much,” he said, turning to Lamm. “When we were finding the house, we were asking, ‘Will we have beds? What will we have for stuff?’”
Family Promise helped provide furniture for the family, including a pink princess bed a volunteer found for Doxanna, who is 2 years old and is sleeping better now than in the Freeport hotel, where her mother said she would often wake up every few hours.
“She’s very happy,” Tshov said. “She’s moving. She’s running around.”
‘HARDER AND HARDER’
But the family newly housed in Parkside still faces challenges. Tshov is pregnant and they don’t always have enough food. Back in Old Orchard Beach, where they were being housed in a motel, Marhegane said, there was one day when they ran out of food and had no transportation or market nearby.
“Since that day, we’ve tried to make a strategy,” Marhegane said. “When we have food we need to try and keep (it). We need to calculate when we’ll get the next voucher.”
In Westbrook, John and Ndelela were still trying to coordinate transportation for their daughter, who is in kindergarten, to her school in South Portland last week. They plan to have her finish the school year there and then transfer to Westbrook schools. Being away from the hotel, where supports such as meals and transportation were easier to come by, has been a little bit of an adjustment.
“Once you’re solo in your own house, you don’t see these activities happening,” John said. “You’re kind of left out in the dark. Luckily for us, once again, we speak the language. We speak English, so it’s easier for us to navigate ourselves around getting the bus, going to the store, asking for help, asking for directions.”
Hoskins, the city’s resettlement coordinator, said some families also face a challenge when they finally get their work permits, which can mean they no longer qualify for General Assistance but don’t make enough to afford their rent. “A lot have to relocate,” Hoskins said. “If they’re in Greater Portland, they often can’t afford the rental rates at that time.”
As the housing market becomes tighter, Hoskins said, it’s become more common for families to look for housing outside Portland, but that hasn’t necessarily made the search easier.
“With the prices of everything going up right now, landlords are looking for the max benefit they can receive. With tourist season right around the corner, you’re seeing a lot of Airbnb. And it is hard to think about the options for people when there isn’t much available,” Hoskins said. “It is definitely getting harder and harder, I would say.”