Portland, Maine’s ‘Bring Them On’ Migrant Policy Forces Nearby Town To Consider Turning Churches, Homes Into Homeless Shelters

Experts are blaming part of the problem on ‘very progressive’ Mayor Ethan Strimling’s push for ‘sanctuary jurisdiction.’

AP/Elise Amendola
A migrant family at the Exposition Building, Portland, Maine, in 2019. AP/Elise Amendola

A Maine city’s proposal to turn private homes and churches into migrant shelters is a symptom of the state’s larger homeless epidemic, as towns grapple with the result of “sanctuary” policies from Democratic leaders, experts say. 

On June 3, Westbrook — a suburb of Maine’s largest city, Portland — will hold a public hearing on a proposal to allow for private spaces to be licensed as public emergency shelters to house homeless people and migrants. 

“Towns in Maine are having to get creative now in terms of how to deal with the homelessness population,” Maine Policy Institute’s director of legislative affairs, Jacob Posik, says, attributing part of the problem to a “very progressive mayor of Portland,” Ethan Strimling, who during his 2015 to 2019 term worked to make Portland a “sanctuary jurisdiction.” 

When President Trump in 2019 said his administration was “giving strong consideration to placing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities only,” Mayor Strimling’s response was to “bring them on.” 

“We are a place that you should feel welcome and come to,” Mr. Strimling said. “We are not going to check your papers as you are walking up the street, we don’t believe in that, and I hope we never do.”

A few years later, nearby communities like Westbrook are feeling the effects, Mr. Posik says. 

“It has sort of become a destination, if you will, for migrants who are crossing the border,” he notes. “There’s a lot of people from a lot of different countries who are ending up here and now it’s starting to spill outside of Portland into some of these neighboring communities.” 

The proposal wouldn’t force churches and homes to become shelters, but would rather amend land use regulatory code to allow for it. 

“The ordinance currently under consideration would allow single-family or two-family homes to be licensed as emergency shelters and would allow a private civic organization (such as a church) to license a community room within the building as an emergency shelter space,” Westbrook’s director of planning and code enforcement, Jennie Franceschi, said in a statement provided to the Sun. “At present, there is no mechanism within the City of Westbrook’s ordinances which would allow us to license emergency shelter operations.”

Westbrook’s acting mayor and City Council president, David Morse, tells the Sun as of Friday he hasn’t heard “any feedback from residents” on the proposals except for comments made at a recent City Council meeting. 

“I encourage anyone with questions or concerns to come to the public meeting on June 3,” he says. “City staff will be on hand to explain how this ordinance would work if a private civic organization were interested in obtaining a license to have an emergency shelter space in their property.”

At a public planning meeting earlier this month, residents expressed mixed reactions towards the proposal, as the Sun has noted, with supporters arguing it would help the city address soaring homelessness, especially among youth in public schools and their families. One resident opposing it expressed concerns that the measure would increase taxes and make Maine more like California. 

Towns across Maine, but especially in the greater Portland area, are finding themselves having to come up with local solutions as they grapple with a lack of housing, Mr. Posik says. 

“Portland is sort of at its max in terms of the shelters,” he said. “The shelters are at capacity, and in terms of what the city is able to do for the homeless population that actually lives there, I would say that those resources have largely been exhausted. And so now you’re seeing the problem expand out to other communities, and this instance in Westbrook is just one particular case of that reality.”

Portland has tried to rebuild closed shelters, which has been met with “pushback across the community,” he says. 

“NIMBYism is a real thing,” he says. “People don’t necessarily want these things to be in their neighborhood or whatever the case might be. But given the massive influx that has occurred over the last few years in Portland, I would say it’s really the neighboring communities of Portland that are experiencing it the worst.”


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