An ongoing funding battle between Toronto and the federal government has reached the boiling point, as asylum seekers have been left waiting outside a city referral centre, some for weeks at a time, as they struggle to find shelter.
About a third of the people taking up spaces in Toronto’s shelter system are refugees and the issue of getting federal funding to house them has been an issue for successive city leaders.
City shelters are already packed to capacity and Toronto recently changed its policy regarding asylum seekers, referring them to the federal government rather than paying for their shelter spaces. The ensuing result has seen people arriving from Pearson International Airport, to the streets of Toronto, where they have been left to wait in the hot sun or rain.
Several individuals spoke to Global News anonymously, over concerns they would be targeted if they gave their identity. One man said he had just arrived from Nigeria that day and after claiming asylum, he was sent to the Peter Street shelter assessment and referral centre. Another man from Ghana said he had already been there for two weeks and was hoping the situation would soon change.
Another man, we’re calling “Roy” to protect his identity, said he chose Canada because of its reputation abroad and thought it would be a place he could change his life. “I was homeless back home,” he said “I didn’t expect for my new venture, my new start at life to put me back in the same shoes.”
Roy said he got lost trying to find his way to an Ontario Works location, suffering from dehydration during the heat warning. “I’ve cried ten times, for the tenth time that I’ve been here, but I’ve just been sleeping outside,” he said. People have been kind enough to drop off food or water, but Roy said he was unaware of the funding spat that was keeping him and others without shelter.
“This is a federal responsibility and they can’t shirk it any longer,” said outreach worker Diana Chan McNally. “For a country like Canada, which holds human rights in such a high regard, Chan McNally finds the situation on Peter St. to be an appalling abrogation of federal responsibility. “It’s not enough to say ‘We gave you some money.’ Clearly it wasn’t enough,” said McNally.
“These are human beings and we have a collective responsibility at this,” she said. “We shouldn’t even being playing a political football with this.”
Both former mayor John Tory and deputy mayor Jennifer McKelvie tried for several of months collectively to get funding from Ottawa to house refugee claimants and both failed. The city’s incoming mayor Olivia Chow is vowing to succeed where her predecessors did not.
“The federal government is not paying a cent for refugees housing, period.” said Chow on Wednesday. Aside from remaining optimistic, upper levels of government will come to the table for a solution, Chow didn’t say how specifically she would achieve those results.
How dire is the situation?
In an email to Global News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) said in 2022, city council directed that a dedicated refugee shelter system be formed.
“That system has 2,000 spaces and is currently full,” the email read. “Up until June 1, to address the persistent demand, refugee claimants were also being admitted into the base shelter system. There are currently an additional 1,000 refugees in the base system.”
The SSHA said the volume of unhoused refugees “was (and is) having a direct impact on how the City can care for the needs of the city’s homeless population.”
According to the SSHA, more than 35 per cent of the 9,000 people using the city’s shelter system are refugees.
Now, refugees are no longer being housed in the city’s non-refugee shelters.
“The City had hoped not to have to make this change, but after more than a year of requesting urgent funding assistance and logistical support, we had to make difficult decisions,” the email read.
The SSHA said refugees and immigration “fall under federal purview,” adding that no money to help care for them has been received since 2022.
“The City has been meeting with the Federal government for over a year, stressing the need for urgent funding and asking for a long-term strategy and logistical support for the current surge of new arrivals,” the email said. “The Federal government need to allocate the appropriate resources to ensure people have support when they arrive.”
The SSHA said “hundreds of millions” of dollars are required to support the surge of new arrivals accessing the city’s shelter system.
“Currently, the City has funding to support 500 individuals but is using reserve resources to support over 3,000 refugees who are using the system per day,”the SSHA said. “Operating these 2,500 unfunded spaces requires $157 million.”
What has the federal government said?
In an email to Global News on Wednesday, Michelle Carbert a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the government “understands that this type of situation is incredibly difficult and we do empathize with those involved.”
Carbert said the federal government is “committed to collaborating” with the provincial and municipal governments to “help alleviate the pressures that are facing in providing supports to asylum claimants.”
Carbert pointed to the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), saying the federal government provided funding to provincial and municipal governments between 2017 and 2022 on a cost-sharing basis to address “extroardinary interim housing pressures resulting from the increased number of asylum claimants,”
“The government has disbursed almost $700M overall, including approximately $215M to the City of Toronto,” the email read.
Carbert also said IRCC has been providing support since April 2020, through the provision of temporary accomodations for asylum claimants who entered Canada between the ports in Quebec.
Refugees who arrive in the country under the government’s resettlement programs are managed and supported through their resettlement process, Carbert said.
According to Carbert, the federal government plans to spend approximately $495 million in 2023-24 to support service provider organizations that are delivering settlement services to immigrants and resettled refugees in Ontario.
“This includes approximately $175M in federal settlement funding planned for 2023-24, to support settlement services for immigrants and resettled refugees in the Toronto area,” the email read.
— With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson