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The municipal, Ontario and federal governments have been discussing Toronto's refugee crisis within the past week and their officials are meeting Tuesday, when Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said she expects them to present immediate solutions.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Refugee advocacy groups are urging governments to immediately shelter dozens of asylum seekers who have been sleeping on the streets of downtown Toronto for several weeks, and to stop fighting over which level is responsible to pay for additional spaces.

The municipal, Ontario and federal governments have been discussing the issue within the past week and their officials are meeting Tuesday, when Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said she expects them to present immediate solutions.

The City of Toronto has been pleading for $157-million from the federal government for several months to respond to the influx of asylum seekers in need of shelter, and the situation has worsened even after the closure in March of Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing where asylum seekers were previously able to enter Canada and make refugee claims.

In their call for action Monday outside Toronto’s shelter intake centre, advocates said shelter spaces could include the temporary use of hotel rooms or available government buildings until more permanent solutions are found.

A group of asylum seekers, who are mostly Black, have been sleeping outside the shelter intake centre, as the city’s shelter system is at capacity most nights. Former Liberal MP Jean Augustine, the first Black woman to serve as a member of Parliament and federal cabinet minister, visited the site and said she is “troubled” to see what is happening. She called on the public to demand action.

“It’s important for us not to sit back. It’s important for us not to allow this to happen,” she told reporters Monday. “I’m not here to talk about whose responsibility, whose money, whose funding. We need to do better than this.”

Ssali Asuman Najib, an asylum seeker from Uganda, has been sleeping outside for more than two weeks after fleeing the country in fear of political persecution. Mr. Najib told reporters he didn’t expect to be treated this way when he decided to come to Canada.

“I feel so sad,” he said. “We expected at least the government would welcome us.”

Refugee-support groups have been organizing donations of food, clothing and other essentials for those people sleeping on the street. A GoFundMe campaign has raised just shy of $60,000. Others have been offering up rooms in their homes for refugee claimants to stay.

The city said in May that the roughly 9,000 shelter spaces in Toronto are full most nights and that without additional funding, refugee claimants would be referred to federal programs. There were 1,500 spaces opened specifically for refugee claimants last spring, and all those spaces are full.

The federal government has said it is in communication with city officials on how to best provide assistance, but that housing and supports for asylum seekers is a responsibility of the province and city. Bahoz Dara Aziz, press secretary for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser, said in a statement Friday that the government provided $700-million for an interim housing program for asylum seekers, including more than $215-million in Toronto.

But city officials dispute this figure, saying only $71.3-million was received in 2022 to support refugees and that funding for the program was cancelled in the 2023-24 federal budget without notice. When asked for clarification Monday, the federal ministry said the program did end this March but reiterated that it gave Toronto $215-million.

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing agrees with Toronto that the federal government needs to step up and pay more. Victoria Podbielski, press secretary for Housing Minister Steve Clark, said the province has recently provided more than $96-million in funding for refugee programs and services, including English or French lessons and job training.

Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles wrote Monday to Premier Doug Ford asking the government to provide “immediate relief” with emergency funding to Toronto and other municipalities struggling to find enough shelter space.

Toronto isn’t the only city grappling with an influx of asylum seekers and a lack of shelter space. Last week, Regional Municipality of Durham Chair John Henry said the region can’t keep up with the demand and needs more money and access to housing sites. The region consists of cities east of Toronto including Ajax, Oshawa and Whitby.

The Niagara region has also been asking for more funding to support about 5,200 asylum seekers being housed in 2,000 hotel rooms in the area.

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