Toronto is asking residents to open up their homes and offer available rental units to asylum seekers as more than 200 people remain temporarily sheltered at two North York churches.
The city added 250 additional shelter spaces within the last week, through hotels and an existing emergency shelter, but these spaces are already full.
More than 200 people are staying at Revivaltime Tabernacle and Dominion Church in North York, two churches that opened up as temporary shelters last Monday for asylum seekers who were sleeping on the street outside a downtown Toronto shelter intake centre for weeks. The churches warn that while they won’t force people out onto the street, the costs to run the shelters are increasing significantly and the efforts aren’t sustainable.
The 250 additional shelter spaces were unanimously approved by council last week as part of a plan introduced by Mayor Olivia Chow to address the influx of asylum seekers, mostly from African countries.
Many people slept outside as the city and federal government sparred for weeks about who is responsible for footing the bill for providing additional shelter space. Toronto’s 9,000-bed shelter system is full most nights. About 300 people are turned away from the system nightly, with half of them being asylum seekers, according to city data.
Ms. Chow’s plan also included a program to encourage residents to offer available rental units at or below market rate to the asylum seekers through DonateTO. Landlords can offer their properties through the portal, which will be shared with agencies helping find more permanent accommodations for asylum seekers.
The city said as of Thursday it has received two offers of rental properties through the new program, one being a 19-unit property and the other a one-bedroom unit.
Refugee claimants would receive a benefit to be able to pay for rent as part of the program, through a new $13-million fund split between the city and the provincial government.
On a tour of the shelter at the Revivaltime Tabernacle Friday afternoon, Ms. Chow apologized for the way the asylum seekers have been treated and pledged that the city will do what it can to support them. But with limited shelter space and fiscal capacity, she urged the federal government to step in and provide more financial aid.
Last week, Ottawa provided $97-million for temporary shelter, but Ms. Chow said that is not enough and will only cover 1,500 beds this year. There are currently more than 3,100 refugee claimants in the shelter system and the demand is growing. The city previously asked for $157-million this year to cover the costs of those in the shelter system.
Ms. Chow also called for Ottawa to work with the Red Cross to set up a reception centre near Pearson International Airport to co-ordinate housing supports for refugee claimants arriving in Toronto.
“People are opening their hearts, they’re opening up their wallets, we’re asking the federal government that they also do the same,” she said. “This situation cannot continue.”
Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland sent a letter to Ms. Chow rejecting the city’s requests for more money and calling on the provincial government to step in. But Ms. Chow called on the new ministers responsible for housing and immigration, after a cabinet shuffle earlier this week, to work on coming up with a long-term solution.
Pastor Judith James of Revivaltime Tabernacle said the church will not force the asylum seekers back on the street and will act as a shelter as long as needed, but warned the efforts aren’t sustainable. Ms. James said the church isn’t set up to act as a long-term shelter and electricity and water costs have increased significantly, Ms. James said. Church events for youth have had to be cancelled and there are weddings booked for the venue on the horizon.
“We’re asking those who have the power to make change, make change. Those who have a voice to speak to this, make your voices heard,” she said.