SOUTH PORTLAND — In a nondescript hotel on the outskirts of the city, a community of Maine’s newest residents has formed where overnight guests once came and went.
In a room off the lobby where free continental breakfasts were served, a food pantry is now open 24-7, stocked by the South Portland Food Cupboard and Wayside Food Programs.
The fitness room, where tourists once ran on treadmills, is now a meeting space where social service agencies schedule medical appointments, offer English lessons and hold classes on how to cook balanced meals in a microwave.
And in the basement, an emergency stash of coats, boots and other winter gear awaits the newest arrivals, who often show up wearing flip-flops and T-shirts, ill-prepared for Maine’s cold and snowy winters.
In the last 18 months, the Quality Inn & Suites on Route 1 has been wholly transformed into a branch of Portland’s family shelter, taking in hundreds of asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Haiti and Brazil. Most have come from the southern U.S. border with nothing but the items they could carry on a bus or a plane.
The resulting chaos is diligently tended by General Manager Michelle Sandman, a petite, plain-spoken woman who is interchangeably described as an angel or a hero by those who have seen her in action. She watches over her domain like a mother hen, not about to take guff from anyone. She sees potential where others see only need.
“It’s like a little village,” Sandman says as she walks through the beige compound made up of 62 traditional hotel rooms and 40 suites with kitchenettes.
“We’re just doing what we can to help people,” she says. “They come with nothing. They were starving. My staff has empathy. We’re all immigrants.”
Olivier Pongo Selemani, 36, arrived at the hotel in mid-December with his wife and two young children. He was a mechanic in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, before they fled several months ago. Their journey took them through Brazil to Mexico.
Selemani declines to say why he left his native country, which is common among migrants who worry that speaking publicly will jeopardize their chances of being granted asylum.
“I am happy to be here, where they help people,” he says through an interpreter.
In this international village, most guests are fluent in French, Portuguese and/or Lingala, the dominant indigenous language of the DRC. Because few speak English, many rely on cellphone translation apps when an interpreter is unavailable, which is most of the time.
On a typical morning, with noisy workmen crowding the lobby, a hotel guest walks up to the front desk and shows the clerk her phone. In a wordless exchange, the clerk slides two rolls of toilet paper across the desk and the guest heads back to her room.
Sandman’s staff, which includes her husband and son, find ways to communicate and connect with their long-term guests.
“I take into consideration what they’ve been through,” says front desk manager Anna Stuart. “What they’ve left behind and the culture shock they’re experiencing. One woman showed me a video of the raging river she had to cross to get here. Another told me the police chased her through the forest in Cuba. But they kept themselves and their children alive through it all.”
For several years, Portland, Maine’s largest city, has been placing overflow emergency shelter guests in budget hotels around Greater Portland. But none has embraced the escalating challenge in recent months as fully as Sandman and her staff.
The Quality Inn is housing about 400 asylum seekers, more than half of them children, on a little more than two acres. Some arrived months ago. Some came this week. They are here without money, jobs, transportation or regular access to food, clothing and medical care.
Sandman says nobody could have predicted the confluence of events that led to this crisis – a continuing flow of asylum seekers that first surged in the summer of 2019, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting real estate boom that made scarce affordable housing even harder to find.
This month, the Biden administration was forced by court order to reinstate the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed. Whether it will reduce the number of migrants coming to Maine remains to be seen.
In the meantime, asylum seekers have continued to arrive in Portland. Some spend the last of their money on plane or bus fare to get here. Others say they purchased tickets with funding from Catholic Charities in Texas and other agencies on the southern border that are aiding asylum seekers.
Portland’s family shelter is using 99 of 102 rooms at the Quality Inn, most of them for migrant families, said Jessica Grondin, city spokesperson. A few rooms are rented to local families and veterans who also are homeless, Sandman said.
The city’s family shelter on Chestnut Street was full as usual this week, with 24 families (66 individuals), and the city was housing 165 families (543 individuals) in area hotels, Grondin said.
The total number of individuals served by the family shelter increased 20 percent in recent months, from 507 in October, to 535 in November, to 609 this week. Eleven families (39 individuals) arrived last Friday through Tuesday. The city has filled a hotel in Old Orchard Beach that was recently added to its roster and it’s looking for more rooms in neighboring communities.
“They’re literally putting down the family shelter’s address as their destination,” Grondin said of the city’s newcomers. “Of course we want to help people, but we’re literally running out of space.”
CONNECTING THROUGH FOOD
Alexis Guy is doing her best to transform the former workout room at the Quality Inn into a classroom. Ignoring the treadmills crammed in one corner, she hangs a poster on the benefits of eating whole grains. She rearranges tables and chairs. She sets up a taste test to demonstrate the difference between regular and whole wheat pasta.
Guy works for The Opportunity Alliance, Cumberland County’s community action agency, as an educator about the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps.
In recent weeks, Guy has begun offering cooking classes at the Quality Inn, to help asylum seekers make the most of the canned, dried, fresh and prepared foods that are available to them in the hotel’s free food pantry. They have been given food vouchers to shop at area supermarkets, but the stores are miles away, transportation is costly and difficult to manage without speaking English, and cold storage in each room is limited to a mini fridge.
Plus, while some hotel guests have kitchenettes with stovetops, most are limited to microwave cooking, which isn’t the easiest or ideal way to prepare an entire meal.
Assisted by an interpreter, Guy hopes to help the newcomers better understand their nutrition options here and learn how to shop for and cook the foods they love during their stay at the hotel and beyond. Staples include dried beans, cassava root and collard greens.
Guy says the cooking class is an initial step toward building a new life in an unfamiliar place.
“We’re offering a space for people to speak about foods that make them feel comfortable and at home,” she says.
Four people attend Guy’s cooking class. One of them is Jessica Da Silva, 30, a Brazilian woman who married a man from Angola. She worked in grocery stores and restaurants in Brazil, including Starbucks, so she was drawn to the subject matter.
“Everything related to food catches my eye,” Da Silva, speaking Portuguese, says through the interpreter.
Da Silva’s 3-year-old son sits quietly beside her during the class. Wearing earbuds, he smiles occasionally as he watches an American TV show on his mother’s cellphone. She says she didn’t want to leave her native country, but she came to Maine with her husband and two young children to escape the crime and violence of drug gangs in Brazil.
“I want to work to provide a better future for my family,” Da Silva says.
GETTING READY FOR SANTA
It’s a chilly morning in early December and the Quality Inn is relatively quiet. Several bright yellow buses have already come and gone, transporting many of the estimated 250 children staying at the hotel to various South Portland public schools.
But whenever the weather is warm enough, Sandman says, the parking area fills with kids playing basketball, drawing on the pavement with colored chalk and riding bicycles shared by the families.
Sandman is glad for the quiet now because she’s in the final stretch of planning a Christmas party for the migrant families to be held at the Eastpoint Church near the Maine Mall. The South Portland Housing Authority and other groups, businesses and individuals are helping to provide gifts and cookies to parents and their children. She hopes to include homeless families staying in several area hotels.
“Santa’s Santa,” she says. “We have to do everybody. The goal is to wrap everything, but we’re probably not going to make it.”
At 52, Sandman has been working in the hospitality industry for nearly 40 years. She started at age 13, busing tables at a restaurant in Granby, Connecticut, where she grew up. She has worked in restaurants and hotels ever since.
It explains why she answers the phone the same way nearly every time: “Hello, this is Michelle, how can I help you?” And why she appears to be a bit of a dervish, pivoting between staff questions, phone calls, guest inquiries and her own list of things to do. Twelve-hour days are common.
“I never say no,” Sandman says. “I don’t know my own limits. And I’m not complaining.”
Through the years, Sandman has become a multifaceted problem solver who has learned to “think on her feet” and “go with the flow,” she says. Her latest guests have challenged her to think outside the box as well.
When she learned the new arrivals were washing clothes in their bathtubs, she taught them how to use the hotel’s machines. When they repeatedly pulled fire alarms because they say “pull,” Sandman began instructing guests to pull only if there’s a fire and installed special covers that send out a sharp sound as a reminder when lifted.
When some guests began hoarding items from the hotel’s food pantry and clothing stash, leaving little for others, she explained that food and clothing would be available whenever they needed it. She understood that they probably had experienced great deprivation and food insecurity.
“We learn from our mistakes and we move on,” Sandman says. “Everybody here is in need and they help each other out. And they’ll tell each other off if they get out of line.”
It upsets Sandman when some people question helping asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing political oppression, war, natural disasters, poverty and starvation. Most of the migrants staying at the Quality Inn traveled from Central Africa to Brazil and up through Central America to Mexico, a journey that can be dangerous, costly and take months or years.
She says many are eager to work as soon as they get green cards – and Maine has so many job openings. She had to hire an outside company to clean rooms because she has been unable to staff the work herself. She plans to hire some of the asylum seekers who have stayed at the hotel when they are able to work.
“If we didn’t help them, they’d have nowhere to go,” Sandman says. “We have to put ourselves in their shoes.”
FINANCIAL & HUMANITARIAN GOALS
People seeking asylum have few resources as they apply and then wait for official immigration status and permission to work, which can take 18 months to two years.
In the meantime, their housing and other basic needs are covered by General Assistance programs funded by municipal, state and federal sources. But they must cover their own immigration fees, including about $500 for a green card, which grants permanent-resident status to live and work in the United States. Sandman is stumped by a system that seems broken and possibly designed to fail.
“If you can’t work, how do you get $500?” she asks.
Her frustration is shared widely by others working on behalf of asylum seekers.
“Michelle is going above and beyond and really showing herself to be an example to others,” said Scott Morelli, city manager of South Portland. “She has helped to expose the flaws that existed in the system and the failures of government – and nonprofits in some cases – to provide adequate food, clothing and transportation for people coming here.”
Sandman credits the company that owns the Quality Inn with allowing her to operate the property as a temporary homeless shelter in these extraordinary circumstances. The gratitude is mutual.
“We’re lucky to have Michelle. She has a really big heart and she’s tough,” said Stephen Leonard, managing director of New England Hospitality, which owns eight hotels in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Leonard said the company’s decision was driven by both economic and humanitarian interests. Summer through fall, the hotel typically charges $200 to $300 per night and attracts tourists and others seeking more affordable overnight accommodations near higher-priced Portland, he said.
But that demand fell off during the pandemic, as did off-season demand from others including students, contractors and truckers. Taking in clients from Portland’s family shelter “just kind of snowballed,” he said.
“In the winter, it’s a head in a bed,” Leonard said. “Seven days a week, the hotel is full. We continue to operate as a hotel. Our rooms are fully cleaned weekly and our front desk is staffed around the clock.”
The owners, who bought the hotel and hired Sandman in 2019, also believe in protecting and reinvesting in their properties, Leonard said. That includes off-season renovations that began this month. Walls are being resurfaced and painted, and hallway carpeting is being ripped up and replaced.
“We’re trying to do what we can to make this work for everyone,” Leonard said. “It’s a difficult situation that’s just been dropped on the community. We want to see this through to the end. Our belief is, you’re loyal to your customer. If there’s still a lot of need in the summer, we’ll continue to house these folks.”
Leonard declined to say how much the Quality Inn is charging to house asylum seekers. Grondin, with the city of Portland, also wouldn’t disclose the cost, although she said it is being covered by state and federal dollars because of the pandemic.
HOMELESS OUTREACH IN DEMAND
It is a cold and rainy mid-December day when Josh Pobrislo sets up his homeless outreach trailer behind the Quality Inn. He erects two canopies so people can stay dry while they wait for assistance. A generator hums, keeping the lights on in the exam room.
Pobrislo is a South Portland firefighter-paramedic, as well as the city’s local health officer and community care paramedic. The custom-built trailer visits four hotels in the city – two each week – that are housing Portland’s shelter clients. Usually a handful of firefighters help out. Today, there’s only one, plus an interpreter whose services prove crucial.
Pobrislo clenches a list of 19 room numbers indicating guests who arrived since he was here two weeks ago. Throughout the morning, dozens of asylum seekers mill about in the drizzle, waiting as he fills and hands out backpacks jammed with basic supplies. Hats, gloves and socks are in demand now.
At his side is Prince Pombo Mafumba, interpreting French, Portuguese and Lingala. Originally from the DRC, Mafumba fled political persecution and came to Portland with his wife and child in the first wave of asylum seekers in the summer of 2019.
After being granted asylum and getting his green card, he first taught French in Freeport schools and now works at L.L.Bean. In his off hours, he works with Pobrislo, helping to connect the newcomers with food, clothing, health care and legal services to navigate the asylum process.
“I am one of these people,” Mafumba says. “I know the trajectory that they are on. I understand them because I’ve been through what they’ve been through. I made the same trip. Some of them have lost loved ones along the way. It’s tough for them to figure out what to do here. They are a little bit lost.”
‘WE NEED CLOTHES & BOOTS’
Kilembo Joana Mandiangu needs no interpreter. She rides a bicycle up to a Press Herald reporter standing amid the commotion and says directly, “We need clothes and boots.” She is wearing flip-flops, yoga pants and a cropped polo shirt. When she learns that she is talking to a “journaliste,” she is ecstatic because she wants to be a journalist, too.
She is 16 years old and from Angola, where she was a good student and learned to speak four languages. She arrived at the hotel a few days ago, along with her father, a tailor, her mother and two sisters. Her father is friends with Selemani, the mechanic from Kinshasa, and the two families traveled together, she says.
“It’s been difficult, but God helped us,” she says. “I am happy to be here, but I am frightened, too, because I don’t know how things work here.”
Selemani’s 3-year-old son, Neymar, tugs at her for attention, so she pulls him onto the bike with her and gives him a ride around the parking lot.
As the morning progresses, several migrants ask to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and Pobrislo delegates his only helper to drive them to Shaw’s for their first shots. He’s qualified to administer vaccines but not authorized to do so through the homeless outreach program.
Two women present with serious health conditions: one has diabetes that’s out of control and causing her blood pressure to skyrocket; the other has a fibroid tumor that’s causing great pain. Pobrislo calls an ambulance for the woman with diabetes.
From 8 a.m. to noon, Pobrislo and his team never stop.
“The Quality Inn is always chaos for us,” Pobrislo says. “It’s emotionally exhausting. There is so much need and we’re only here every other week. But I don’t worry about the people staying in this hotel compared to the others because I know Michelle is in charge.”
CHRISTMAS PARTY SUCCESS
At the Christmas party held last Saturday morning, Sandman is definitely in charge, wearing a red-and-white sequined skirt, a necklace of colored lights and a holiday tiara. Hundreds of gift bags for children and adults spread across the floor in a community room at the Eastpoint Church. The bags contain necessities, such as shampoo and deodorant, and new and gently used toys.
“It looks like Santa threw up in here,” Sandman says with typical frankness.
Church leaders drive buses to pick up families staying at the Quality Inn, Howard Johnson, Motel 6 and Super 8 hotels. Sandman hands out the gift bags with help from her staff and church members. Jefferson and Silas, two little boys from the Quality Inn who have bonded with Sandman, are excited to see her.
Some of the families stop to meet Santa Claus and pick up fresh-baked cookies on the way back to the bus. It’s not lost on Stuart, the front desk manager, that the setting might be unfamiliar and seem a bit strange to the newcomers.
“But they’re all in need and every child deserves to be happy this time of year,” she says.
Lori and John Guertin, owners of the Quality Inn, drove up from New Hampshire to help with the festivities. They’re big fans of Sandman and her husband, Michael, who is the hotel’s assistant general manager.
“We’re so lucky to have both of them,” Lori Guertin says. “They’re good-hearted, hard-working people.”
Sandman is pleased with the turnout.
“I think they were surprised,” she says. “Everybody was happy.”
As soon as the party ends, Sandman and her husband drive south to Florida for a rare vacation with family. Long hours have taken a toll on her health, but it’s not really time off. Reached Monday by phone, she says she’s still working, remotely. She’s a witness in a child neglect case involving hotel guests that’s going to court this week. And she’s staying in constant touch with her staff.
“I have a lot of meetings,” Sandman says. “Then I have to do Christmas for everybody here. It’s always something.”