Toronto to open hotel rooms for 150 asylum seekers amid shelter shortages

Toronto to open hotel rooms for 150 asylum seekers amid shelter shortages
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Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow delivered her first media availability after being sworn in at Toronto City Hall, on July 12. Toronto City Council announced more funding to shelter asylum seekers on July 19.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Toronto is opening up hotel rooms for 150 asylum seekers after the city received a pledge for $97-million from the federal government toward shelter spaces, but Mayor Olivia Chow said a long-term solution is needed to respond to the “crisis.”

City council unanimously approved a plan Wednesday, brought forward by Ms. Chow, to address the growing need for shelter from refugee claimants arriving in Toronto. The measures approved by the council include spending $6.67-million this year on expanding a rent supplement program for people currently experiencing homelessness that will be matched by the provincial government.

In a joint statement Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ms. Chow asked Ottawa to provide $26.7-million in funding to join their contributions in expanding the rent supplement program. Ms. Chow said the top-ups by the city and province will help provide permanent housing to more than 1,350 households and in turn free up space in the shelter system.

The city’s shelter system has roughly 9,000 spaces and is full most nights, including more than 3,000 refugee claimants. Upward of 100 asylum seekers, mostly from African countries, have been staying outside a downtown Toronto shelter intake center for the past several weeks, prompting the city’s plan to open new shelter spaces.

The city, provincial government and Ottawa have been fighting over who is responsible for footing the bill to provide more shelter.

Asylum seekers have continued to arrive in Toronto and surrounding municipalities in recent months despite the March closing of Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing in Quebec where people were previously able to enter Canada from the US and make refugee claims. In May, the city said it would need to refer asylum seekers in need of shelter to federal programs because there was no more room or money to open additional spaces.

Toronto had said that it requires $157-million from the federal government, which would cover the cost of existing shelters for refugee claimants, and includes $97-million for 1,500 temporary spaces added to the system. This request does not include housing costs for those currently without shelter and future refugee claimants arriving in Toronto.

Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser announced the federal funding Tuesday as part of a $212-million extension of the Interim Housing Assistance Program until March, 2024, for municipalities to increase shelter spaces. This is in addition to almost $700-million already provided through the program since 2017.

The city is planning to renew existing shelter contracts with hotels to provide 150 spaces by the end of the week, and is urgently looking for space to provide shelter for another 100 asylum seekers, said Ms. Chow.

The Council is asking city staff to develop an outreach strategy to encourage residents to provide rental accommodation to refugee claimants as finding space has been a challenge.

“We know that Torontonians are generous. We know that together we can be welcoming for refugee claimants so they have dignity, so they don’t have to sleep on the street in the middle of a rainstorm,” Ms. Chow said.

Ms. Chow’s plan also includes calling on Ottawa to open a refugee reception area near Pearson International Airport to connect people with services.

Toronto isn’t the only city in the province facing the increased demand. Ontario’s Big City Mayors called for an urgent meeting with the federal government to find immediate solutions.

In his announcement Tuesday, Mr. Fraser called on the provinces and municipalities to step up and build strategies to support asylum seekers into their housing plans. There are an estimated 4,000 asylum seekers requiring support in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas.

Mr. Fraser’s press secretary Bahoz Dara Aziz didn’t directly respond to the new requests in a statement Wednesday. She said the federal government is committed to providing assistance to asylum seekers through the additional funding announced this week as well as paying for 3,800 hotel rooms that were opened across six provinces to provide temporary housing.

“We need full engagement from all levels of government as we work to ensure asylum seekers have a roof over their heads,” he said in the statement.

Those who were sleeping on the streets of Toronto for the last few weeks were sheltered starting Monday night at two North York churches, organized by the Black Community Housing Advisory Table and other advocacy groups who have been calling for governments to take action and have pledged to shelter the asylum seekers for as long as they can.

Debbie Douglas, advisory table member and executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, said the city’s plans to provide additional shelter are welcome news, but said they are just “the first steps in dealing with the immediate crisis.” She called for all levels of government to work on an affordable housing plan to reduce the overall need for shelter.

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