Toronto could soon ask the federal government to turn its armouries into makeshift shelters as it struggles to deal with the refugee housing crisis.

On Tuesday, Mayor Olivia Chow's executive committee voted in favour of a motion to call on the Canadian government to both fund and make operational emergency accommodation at its sites, including armouries, as well as establish a regional refugee reception centre.

There are currently five federal armouries in the city. The ones at Moss Park and Fort York were used for emergency shelter on four different occasions, most recently at the downtown east location in 2018.

“The federal government needs to step up and actually take action, and we've been asking and we've been asking,” Chow said following the meeting, pointing to additional shelter spaces that the city has activated as well as funding made available for housing benefits, rent subsidies, and to support churches who opened their doors to help.

“The city have stepped up. We go way beyond what we can possibly do. Even when we have a $1.5 billion budget deficit, we stepped up. We don't have any more money to do any more. We cannot open up more shelter spaces because all shelters are full. We literally can't do any more.”

The motion adopted on Tuesday also recommended that the city ask Canada to provide “appropriate support services” for refugee claimants and asylum seekers, reimburse Toronto for the full costs it has incurred supporting them, and provide funding through the Interim Housing Assistance program as well as increase the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit allocation, notably to match recent provincial and municipal program increases with $6.67 million in funding for 2023.

City council is expected to consider this item next week.

Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who called the refugee crisis “one of the most serious things were facing in the City of Toronto right now,” presented the motion on Tuesday.

“It’s unusual in the history of this country that there’s no reception centre at the airport for refugees who are arriving. There’s no immediate Immigrant Refugee and Citizenship Canada staff that are taking asylum seekers into a place where they can be inside and safe,” she said.

“We know that people are increasingly arriving from African countries and also from Latin America. They’re not equipped for winter and there are people who are waiting to get inside who are wearing flip flops. There’s no way that we can meet this crisis without understanding the role that the federal government must play more thoroughly.”

Moss Park Armoury

Chow said that as a former city councillor she was involved in activating the Moss Park Armoury on two occasions for people experiencing homelessness.

“I've seen it. I've been in it. I've seen hundreds of people being able to sleep and be kept out of the cold,” she told reporters following her monthly executive committee meeting.

The mayor said that the city wants to work with the feds to make that happen again, especially with the recently influx of refugee claimants and asylum seekers seeking shelter here.

“(This) is completely unacceptable in the middle of the fall when the temperature drops to close to zero, or sometimes below zero, when it's raining, wet and cold out,” Chow said.

“(Refugees arriving to Canada from Africa) are not used to this type of cold. They are arriving without a warm coat. How could they possibly survive on the streets?”

Last June, the city announced that it no longer had the capacity to shelter refugees and asylum seekers and would begin referring those who showed up at full shelters to federal programs, a decision Chow has since apologized for.

Since then, hundreds of people have gathered outside the Central Intake centre on Peter Street in the hope of being offered emergency shelter.

Several churches in Toronto opened their doors to help, but some didn’t have the volunteers or the funds to keep going for a long length of time and were forced to suspend their efforts.

The city has received some assistance from the province, however the federal government’s promise of $97 million for Toronto has not yet been formally conveyed.

Since 2022, the number of refugees arriving in Canada has grown by 54 per cent, with many arriving in the GTA in desperate need of supports and housing.

Currently, refugee claimants and asylum seekers make up about a third (roughly 4,000) of the 11,000 or so people in Toronto’s shelter system.