Toronto ombudsman probing city's decision to block asylum seekers from overflowing shelter system
Published Thursday, September 21, 2023 10:53AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 21, 2023 3:02PM EDT
Toronto’s ombudsman says he is launching an investigation into the city’s decision to deny shelter access to refugee claimants and asylum seekers this past spring.
"There is no doubt that the City of Toronto is facing a housing crisis. Even so, the City has an obligation to treat all people in Toronto fairly, with dignity, respect, and care," Ombudsman Kwame Addo said in a statement Thursday. "I am launching an investigation to determine if the City's decision to deny non-refugee shelter spaces to refugee claimants and asylum seekers met that obligation."
In a May 31 news release, the city said that it was facing "unprecedented demand" for shelter in Toronto and said that while it normally budgets for 500 shelter spaces for asylum-seekers per night, it was seeing an additional 2,300 refugee claimants every night in the system.
The city's shelter system generally operates at full capacity and officials have estimated that around a third of the spaces are being used by thousands of refugees.
Citing the fact that refugees and asylum-seekers are an area of federal responsibility, the city said it would have to start referring asylum-seekers to federal programs instead of admitting them to the regular waiting list for those seeking shelter.
As a result, hundreds of asylum-seekers ended up sleeping on the streets outside of a downtown shelter intake centre in the hopes that a spot might open up for them.
Community groups eventually stepped in to house some of the asylum seekers in churches and to provide food and clothing. Eventually, the federal government said it would provide the city $97 million to assist with housing for asylum seekers and refugees.
The provincial government also recently said that it would provide the city with $26.4 million to help house them.
However, critics have said that the city created a crisis by changing its policy.
After taking office, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow passed a motion calling for refugees to be able to access space in the shelter system as it becomes available, however refugees and asylum seekers have continued to struggle to access space.
In a release Thursday, the ombudsman's office said that it will consider the city processes leading up to the decision, the city’s communication about its decision with staff and the public, and whether the decision and its implementation were fair and in keeping with city policies, procedures, and rules.
The investigation will include interviews with people affected by the decision and members of the public are also being invited to email or call with comments.
Ombudsman Toronto is an independent office, which operates at arm’s length from the city and investigates public complaints about the city. This is the first investigation to come out of the office’s newly created housing unit.
In a statement to CP24.com, the city said it plans to "fully cooperate" with the investigation.
"The City will ensure the Deputy Ombudsman is provided with the entire scope of work undertaken by staff on this complex and important matter," the statement read. "In the meantime, the City will continue its work to support the 9,000 people in the shelter system – including 3,500 refugee claimants – and push other orders of government for a sustainable, long-term strategy so municipalities across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area can appropriately manage demand and offer new arrivals a dignified welcome."
In a separate statement to CTV News Toronto, Mayor Chow said she believes "anyone who needs City shelters should be able to access them, regardless of status" and added that she's been working with city staff to try make sure that happens.
"That is why my July motion asserted this, and I have worked with City Staff in recent weeks to ensure refugees are able to access both the refugee-specific system and the base shelter system," Chow said. "However, our shelters are full. Each night hundreds of people are turned away, and half of them are refugees."
She said the solution should ultimately include a long-term, sustainable plan from the federal government, including a regional welcoming centre to support refugees when they arrive.