Categorized | Canadian Politics

‘There is no plan’: As Toronto faces refugee shelter crisis, federal government drags its feet on helping

Posted on 11 July 2018 by admin

Mayor Tory wants Ottawa to step up with more cash. He wants the federal government to run its own shelter sites. But they don’t seem to share the city’s urgency

There’s a breaking point coming in Toronto and no one seems to have any idea what will happen when it does.

The city’s shelter system, overwhelmed by a two-year migrant surge, has gone past full and blown through bulging. It exists now somewhere east of burst beyond repair.

The city simply cannot take any more, Mayor John Tory said Tuesday, without significant help from the province and the federal government.

“We have exhausted our available sites, our resources and our personnel,” Tory said. “We need the other levels of government to step up and assist Toronto.”

All of that makes sense. More than 3,300 asylum seekers were spread across the Toronto shelter system as of June 24, according to city staff. The city’s existing shelter infrastructure, threadbare to begin with, was overwhelmed months ago. Today, asylum seekers are sleeping in press-ganged hotels and college dorms. And the latter is where the coming crisis lies.

Centennial and Humber colleges need their dorms back by Aug. 9. By then, the city expects 800 asylum seekers, including 200 children, will be living in those rooms. When that happens, Tory said, those 800 people will have nowhere to go.

 “Relocating just this population of 800 would require the emergency closures of multiple community centres across the city and the cancellation of public programming in those centres,” he said. “And this is a step the city is not prepared to take.”

So what’s going to happen? Well, Tory wants Ottawa to step up with more cash and co-operation. He wants the federal government to identify and run its own shelter sites, and to spread asylum seekers out to other Ontario cities.

But the federal government doesn’t seem to share the city’s urgency. And if the city has a contingency plan in case the feds don’t come through, city staff aren’t letting anyone — in the public, or the agencies that deliver services — know about it.

Debbie Corrigan-Hill, the executive director of Sojourn House, one of Toronto’s largest refugee settlement agencies, said she was in a meeting with city staff on this topic a week ago Friday. When the issue of the closing college dorms came up, “everyone just (sat) at the table staring at each other,” Corrigan-Hill said. “There is no plan … that’s the problem, there is no plan.”

At a press conference in his office Tuesday, Tory refused to say what would happen if the city doesn’t get significant help from Ottawa between now and August. “Hypothetical questions are always bad ones to answer because they’re hypothetical,” he said when asked the same question a second time.

“We’re just going to continue to urge upon the government of Canada in particular, but both governments, the need to help us in a tangible way.”

It’s not that Ottawa is ignoring the issue. A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the government wants to set up a “triage system” for Ontario, similar to one in Quebec.

The federal government also announced earlier this month that it would provide $11 million to Ontario to help with temporary housing. But the money and the triage system are on hold until after Ontario’s new government takes office on June 29, spokesman Mathieu Genest said. “Minister Hussen looks forward to engaging with his provincial counterpart in the Ontario government as soon as one is named.”

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, a former Toronto councillor, said the Ontario election “couldn’t have come at a worse time” in terms of the government’s ability to respond to the surge of asylum seekers, though he added that Toronto’s shelter system has been near capacity for a decade. “It’s bursting at the seams at the best of times.”

But Genest also said the federal government needs better data from Toronto about its asylum seekers to know how to respond. In Quebec, the province tracks asylum seekers and knows how long they stay in the shelter system; the numbers spurred Ottawa to speed up the work permit application process last year. But Toronto isn’t collecting that data in the same way, he said.

City staff in Toronto don’t seem to know quite what to make of that criticism. Gord Tanner, the bureaucrat in charge of the city’s shelter system, said the city records the reasons why people are seeking shelter when they are admitted to the system. City staff follow up with an assessment of needs that can dig into that data in more detail.

The city knows how many asylum seekers are in the system, Tanner said — 3,305 as of June 25. They know most — 85 per cent to be precise — are from Nigeria. They know the majority crossed into Canada at Roxham Road, on the Quebec border with New York. They know how many are women and how many are children. They know how long they’re staying in the shelters. Tanner doesn’t know what more the federal government could want that the city can’t provide.

Regardless, the situation is not going to get better on its own. “Them saying ‘we can’t take anymore’ won’t stop people from coming,” Corrigan-Hill said.

At Centennial College Tuesday, in Toronto’s east end, many asylum seekers were inside, watching Nigeria lose to Argentina in the soccer World Cup. The refugee families occupy the top two floors of a large dormitory building. They live in four-bedroom suites with shared kitchens, sitting areas and bathrooms.

After the game, Moses, who fled to Canada from Nigeria via the United States with his wife and daughter, said a worker at the college recently told him he should be looking for somewhere new to stay.

That isn’t as easy as it sounds, he said. “To find a place is stressful. People are increasing rent,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do is pull myself together.”

 

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