‘I feel like I’m not welcome here’: Refugees and organizations speak out as officials meet to address ‘crisis’ on Toronto streets
Published Friday, July 14, 2023 2:07PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 14, 2023 6:12PM EDT
Dozens of frontline organizations working to help refugees held a news conference Friday outside of a shelter intake centre in downtown Toronto to call on the government to urgently address a situation which many are calling a crisis.
Around 30 or so refugees have been regularly sleeping on the sidewalk outside of the intake centre at Richmond and Peter streets for weeks since the city started referring refugees to federal programs instead of admitting them to the municipal shelter system as part of the regular population in June.
“I feel like I’m not welcome here,” one refugee who’s been on the streets since he arrived in Canada told CP24.
A political refugee from Uganda, he said nobody would choose to leave their country if they didn’t have to.
“Unfortunately when I reached Canada I wasn’t given a warm welcome. I’ve been sleeping on the streets for two weeks in the rain,” he said.
Sojourn House Executive Director Debbie Hill-Corrigan called the situation “shameful” and said refugees are being told to call Service Canada staff who “probably don't even know why they're calling.”
“Where is our government's moral compass? This is a sanctuary city, at least I thought it was a welcoming city,” Hill-Corrigan said. “I have worked in this sector for over 30-plus years. Never have I seen refugees ever used as pawns. My taxes pay for a Department of Emergency Management. Is this not an emergency?”
Many of those in attendance chanted “shame” and “now, now, now” and some claimed the policy is racist as the majority of those sleeping on the street are African immigrants.
TORONTO SHELTERS SEE 440 PER CENT JUMP IN REFUGEES SINCE 2001
According to the city, there were 2,900 refugee claimants in Toronto’s shelter system in May. That’s an increase of 440 per cent compared to September 2021, when there were just 537.
While the city funds 500 beds for refugees at a cost of $34 million, it says it needs more than $100 million in federal funding to cover the remaining demand.
Refugees are an area of federal responsibility.
The city said in May that while the federal government is following through on its responsibility to house refugees in other jurisdictions, the same is not happening in Toronto.
It pointed out that more than 70 per cent of the 2,400 hotel rooms leased for refugees by the federal government are in Quebec.
“Without funding from the Government of Canada, the City will have to refer eligible asylum seekers to programs and services available to them through the federal government,” the city said in May.
Since then refugees have camped outside the intake centre on the hope that an extra spot may open up, though few do. They’ve slept outside in the rain and have had difficulty accessing facilities to clean themselves, relying on frontline services and good Samaritans for food and clothing.
While the downtown riding where the centre is located was won by the Liberals 2021, it is represented by MP Kevin Vuong, who was tossed from the party before Election Day for not disclosing a prior arrest.
Vuong has written an open letter calling on the government to address the situation.
Despite Toronto being home to a number of powerful Liberal MPs, they have had little to say about the issue.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was in Toronto Friday to announce $2 million for Jewish Vocational Services Toronto, an organization that provides pre-arrival settlement services for newcomers.
However those rallying outside of the Peter Street intake centre said it’s far too little and while JVS does important work, money specifically required to address refugees sleeping on the streets needs to flow to the city.
MUNICIPAL LEADERS CONCERNED
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said on her first full day on the job Thursday that she is committed to addressing the crisis, noting that the city manager would meet with federal and provincial officials to discuss immediate and long-term solutions to address the issue.
In a statement following the meeting on Friday, the mayor said it was a "productive and focused" discussion between the three levels of government, noting that all had agreed to bring specific actions that could be implemented immediately to another meeting next Tuesday.
"The City, Provincial and Federal governments all see and understand the urgent need to address the immediate crisis, and to develop and implement longer term solutions so that newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers have the support and shelter they deserve," Chow said.
"I continue to work with City staff to communicate with other orders of government the urgency of the situation and my commitment to providing refugees secure shelter and a pipeline to permanent housing."
Toronto is not the only municipality in the GTA facing similar challenges in providing shelter for refugees.
Durham Region said earlier this week that it is also struggling to provide shelter for refugees and Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier said in a statement Friday that nearly 200 refugees and asylum seekers have arrived there since the end of June, putting “immense pressure” on the town’s services.
“More displaced individuals are arriving daily and with no remaining capacity in the system, people are being forced to sleep on the street. In a matter of days, Ajax has already experienced an approximate 40% increase to our existing unsheltered population,” Collier said.
Speaking at the rally, United Church of Canada minister and former MPP Cheri DiNovo said refugees are being re-traumatized by being made homeless and said “we should be ashamed” of the situation as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
“We have and we should be welcoming asylum seekers and refugees,” DiNovo said. “But (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau knows there’s a homelessness problem in this province and in this city in particular, and should be stepping up with the funds to be able to supply all the needs that refugees and asylum seekers have, so they're not camped out on the street here.”