PORTLAND (WGME) – There are still more than 130 asylum seekers staying at the Portland Expo emergency shelter.
They need to be out by Thursday and while Maine and Portland leaders scramble to find them housing, some homeless Mainers are saying they feel left behind.
Among them is Zanetta Smith, who on a rainy August day said she is thankful for the storage shack in the woods a friend is letting her live in.
Smith said it’s not much but it’s better than living in her car, where she had been living for the last five years. She said it was difficult in winter.
She said she lost her apartment after she got sick and could not work anymore.
“You fall into bad times and sometimes it’s hard to get out of it,” she said.
Smith is trying to get a place of her own — with a toilet, shower and running water, which the shack does not have.
“Bathroom — I learned how to hold it,” she said with a laugh.
Smith said she has been on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher for years — a list, according to Maine Housing, now has more than 18,000 people on it.
So how long would somebody at the end of the list wait before housing becomes available?
“It’s years, unfortunately. We just don’t have the supply and the stock,” said Maine Housing Director Dan Brennan. He said it could be five years before an applicant receives a voucher to help pay for rent.
And even after an applicant receives one, there is no guarantee a place will be available, Brennan said.
“There simply is not enough supply of units available for people who need them,” he said.
Local housing authorities also have waiting lists for public housing.
In Portland, for example, WGME found nearly 1,400 people waiting for a unit to open up — which could take as long as three years.
“Of course when the asylum seekers come up here they offered them free housing, how do they have a place for them but not for us?” Smith asked.
At last check, more than 150 asylum seekers who arrived in Portland since June have moved out of a makeshift shelter at the Portland Expo and into units in Bath, Brunswick, Lewiston, Portland, and Scarborough.
Brennan said the waiting lists and housing for asylum seekers are separate issues.
The asylum seekers are a very unique situation, in which the housing they were given is temporary and they are not getting a housing opportunity that someone on the waiting list would be afforded.
Brennan said if the asylum seekers eventually need permanent housing help, they will be on waiting lists like everyone else, adding, “But we fully feel this short period of assistance will help the folks as they become self-sufficient and begin to settle here in Maine.”