On a recent sunny morning at a north Toronto church, a group of volunteers hustled up and down stairs emptying carloads of clothing and bedding donations into the church hallways, unable to fit them into an already overflowing room. Another volunteer rushed to get pain medication for a man whose teeth were hurting while a group in the kitchen started preparing lunch.
Pastor Judith James opened Revivaltime Tabernacle Church in North York earlier this week to 230 asylum seekers, many of whom had been sleeping on the street outside a downtown Toronto shelter intake centre for several weeks. Most of the people who ended up staying at the church came to Toronto from African countries, fleeing violence or persecution for their political ties or sexual orientation, Ms. James said.
Toronto’s shelter system of roughly 9,000 beds is at capacity most nights and the city said in May that without additional money, asylum seekers would be referred to federal programs for assistance.
Asylum seekers camped out in downtown Toronto were relocated to the church amid a political standoff between the City of Toronto and the federal government over who should pay for the cost of sheltering people who came to Canada, including through unofficial crossings such as Roxham Road in Quebec before it was shut down earlier this year, to claim refugee status.
Ms. James said she is happy she was able to help provide the asylum seekers a place to shelter from the elements, but is heartbroken governments didn’t take action ahead of time. Black-led community groups such as Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants have been organizing temporary shelters at the church – as well as another North York church housing about 70 people – and co-ordinating donations of essentials, including food and clothing.
“We’re not going to stop until our voices are heard,” Ms. James told The Globe and Mail during an interview at the church. “We are not going to stop raising our voices for the voiceless. We are not going to stop demonstrating our strength and ensuring that our people see that even when Canada and the world turns their back on them, our community will always fight for our community.”
Toronto officials had been raising concerns for years about the cost of sheltering asylum seekers, who the city said make up roughly a third of those staying in the city’s shelter system. Mayor Olivia Chow has taken up the issue as a top priority.
About 300 people are turned away from shelter nightly, the city said, with about half being refugee claimants.
Ottawa pledged $97-million earlier this week, but city officials say it’s not enough to address the growing demand. A day after the funding announcement, Ms. Chow released a plan to urgently open 150 hotel spaces and look for an additional 100 spaces as soon as possible.
As of Thursday, the city said 130 spaces in hotels had been secured and people would be moved in the coming days. The Canadian Red Cross is providing on-site support at the hotel location including access to hygiene kits, prepaid cards for food as well as transportation and laundry services.
Ms. James said she saw the situation on the streets Sunday and immediately found a way to help with members of her church. The response from the community since then has been overwhelming.
At the church Thursday morning after the breakfast rush, seven volunteers waded through bags of clothes filling the floor of a small room to find what people needed.
Volunteer Sherna Sandy, who had just found shoes that would fit a man without a pair, had the day off work and wanted to use her time to help. Ms. Sandy said she had previously been homeless and in and out of the shelter system and understands what it’s like to not have a roof over your head.
As Ms. James took one of many phone calls throughout the morning, a woman who drove more than two hours from Muskoka entered asking how she could help.
In the kitchen, a group was preparing a lunch of chicken tenders and salad for the asylum seekers who remained. Many took transit into the city core to meet with lawyers. Others ventured to nearby shopping malls to buy essentials with gift cards they received as donations.
Yvonne Bullard, children’s pastor at the church, was co-ordinating efforts of roughly 20 volunteers. Ms. Bullard, who came to Canada around the age of 10, said she is disappointed that Black-led organizations and the church community had to step up in this way but praised the compassion of those who have donated time and resources.
“I am shocked at the government’s response, I’m actually ashamed. I’m ashamed because I thought we were better than this, I really did,” Ms. Bullard said, fighting through tears.
The Black Community Housing Advisory Table Coalition, made up of leaders from several advocacy groups, issued a statement Friday calling for urgent donations at the church and other temporary shelter locations.
Ms. James, a member of the coalition, said while the plan to move people to hotels is a good first step, she said it is important for Black community groups to be at the table and included in the decision-making process.
As part of Ms. Chow’s motion, which was supported unanimously by council, the city is in the process of developing a plan to work with non-profits and faith groups to increase the supply of shelter supports. A formal intake process for donations as well as a program for residents to offer rental properties specifically for refugee claimants is being co-ordinated by the city with more details expected Monday.