By Lee Burnett, Sanford Unitarian Universalist Church volunteer
The former St. Ignatius Gym, a temporary home to asylum seekers for the past month, looked like a bus depot last Wednesday and Thursday. Piles of suitcases, storage bins, backpacks and big plastic bags were loaded into awaiting cars, as families prepared for their next relocation.
Eleven families are still seeking permanent apartments. Three of those families were moved to a private residence in Springvale. According to York County Community Action Corporation (YCCAC), they are tenting in the backyard in hopes of moving into permanent apartments in Lewiston within the next week. Accommodations for the other eight families are being provided for three weeks by an anonymous donor while permanent arrangements are being sought. Meanwhile, YCCAC has found apartments in Sanford for 24 families.
Last week’s moving proceeded in fits and starts, said Rachel Phipps, Assistant Director of Economic Opportunity at YCCAC. “It was a lot of hurry up and wait,” she said with a laugh. Tents were set up, keys changed hands, and leases were signed. The basement at the former gym was also abuzz with women wiping out refrigerators, sponging counters, and tidying up. “The shelter looks amazing,” said Phipps. “The refrigerators look spotless.”
Some 130 asylum seekers from Congo DRC, Angola and Haiti descended on Sanford with no warning two months ago. How they found Sanford is still subject to speculation. Their arrival prompted an outpouring of volunteer and professional efforts to find housing, food, medical care, schooling and transportation. That so many people have been successfully settled is “a minor miracle,” said Phipps. She singled out Housing Navigator Jen Davie for special thanks. “She was a miracle worker.”
According to Phipps, the new Mainers will continue to need help with transportation to get legal services, photo IDs, DHHS signups, and English classes. Some have bikes and bus service is available. “It’s not one bus stop anymore,” she said.