Yarmouth residents provide temporary housing for asylum seekers

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YARMOUTH — Local church members are coming together to provide temporary housing for Portland-based asylum seekers.

The Compassionate Housing Initiative is a partnership between three churches that places asylum-seekers with host families. The program was created to assist new Mainers when there is overflow at family shelters in Portland.

“This was one of those things that happened in response to a crisis,” the Rev. Nina Pooley of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church said.

The First Universalist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also participate in the program. The churches established the program at the beginning of the year, and the first family was hosted in June. Since then, two other families have also been placed.

So far, the families housed have been from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Besides the three families that have volunteered as hosts, around 30 other people have volunteered to be supporters who assist the host families and asylum seekers by cooking meals, providing transportation, and translating for the immigrants.

“The support around this is tremendous and essential,” Sandy Meintel, a host-family member, said.

CHI also has two volunteers, Carla Hunt and Lisa Small, who are family coordinators.

“We’re caring for the needs of the host family and of the new Mainer family,” Hunt said.

The family coordinators also work with the city of Portland Family Shelter to find families who want to be placed at homes in Yarmouth. The shelter has 36 units and also works with three hotels for temporary housing. When each place is at capacity, the shelter asks families if they want to go to Yarmouth.

Families typically stay with host families in Yarmouth for a week while looking for permanent housing, but Pooley said they can remain at the homes for up to four weeks. CHI has coordinated with Portland’s General Assistance office so the families can still receive benefits despite their temporary residence in Yarmouth. 

Meintel said while the people she has hosted are grateful for the help, they want to live on their own.

“They’re not looking for handouts at all,” she said. “They’re working to be self-sufficient. They are working hard every day to find housing.”

Hosting has been a very rewarding experience, Meintel said.

“That kind of exchange and sharing of cultures is a wonderful thing,” she said. “It’s enriched my life.”

Meintel said the immigrants are the “most gracious and grateful people” she’s ever met, and she’s glad she can help.

Hunt said all of the volunteers are people who have been concerned about the lack of housing for asylum seekers and want to offer assistance.

“They want to be actively involved in something that changes the community and changes people’s lives,” Hunt said.

Even though the stay with host families is short, Hunt said it makes a big difference in the lives of the asylum seekers.

“I think in times when things are uncertain, this is something concrete,” she said.

Meintel said CHI will have a lasting impact on both the families and the hosts.

“I don’t feel like this is a temporary friendship,” she said. “We will be connected forever in one way or another.”

Pooley said the work CHI is doing is important, and although immigration can be a debated political issue, the program is entirely about helping people in need.

“These are real people,” she said. “It’s not like the car lot is full and we’re moving cars around. These are human beings.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.