The federal government is giving Toronto $97-million to provide shelter spaces for asylum seekers who have been sleeping on the streets, but the city says it still requires more money to meet the growing demand.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser announced the funding Tuesday morning in Moncton, after months of pressure from the City of Toronto for more money. The city said in May the shelter system is full most nights and new asylum seekers would instead be referred to federal programs if more funding wasn’t received.
Dozens of asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, have been staying outside a downtown Toronto shelter intake centre as they wait for housing. The city, province and Ottawa have been fighting for weeks over who is responsible for footing the bill for more shelter spaces.
Senior officials from all levels of government also met Tuesday afternoon to discuss next steps, but no details on opening any additional shelter spaces were released. In a statement after the meeting, Ms. Chow said she will be introducing a motion regarding the issue as her first order of business at Wednesday’s council meeting.
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 where asylum seekers were previously able to enter Canada and make refugee claims.
Mr. Fraser said Canada will continue to provide support to people fleeing violence or persecution, but also called on the other levels of government to implement housing plans for asylum seekers.
“We’re going to continue to support refugees who we choose to bring into our official programs, but we’re going to insist that we work with provinces and municipalities to build adequate plans into their housing strategies to address the needs of people who seek asylum in Canada,” he told reporters.
The funding is part of a larger $212-million extension of the Interim Housing Assistance Program across the country until March, 2024. Mr. Fraser said the money for Toronto should more than cover the cost to house people “currently being denied access” by the city.
But the money promised Tuesday stops short of Toronto’s request. The city said it needs $157-million this year to pay for 3,100 beds that have already been added specifically for refugee claimants as well as additional funding to shelter those sleeping on the streets with the system at capacity.
Mayor Olivia Chow called Ottawa’s announcement a welcome first step that may work as a “short-term stopgap” to house those currently without shelter, but she said the city needs a long-term solution as well as additional money to cover expenses it has already incurred. Ms. Chow also met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the first time since becoming mayor last week and they committed to work together to address the issue.
“This is a crisis. Refugees arriving in Canada deserve to be treated with dignity and need a safe roof over their heads,” Ms. Chow said in a statement. “We have been very clear as a city that we need help accessing shelter space, personnel, funding and support for the organizations stepping up across the city to help those seeking shelter and housing.”
Ahead of the federal announcement, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters that he agrees with Toronto’s request from Ottawa and joined their call for funding.
Ontario’s Big City Mayors issued a statement Monday calling for an urgent meeting of all orders of government to discuss immediate steps that can be taken to address the influx of refugee claimants, saying municipalities can no longer keep up with the demand.
The Black Community Housing Advisory Table, made up of advocates from several community organizations, found shelter on Monday night for asylum seekers who have been sleeping on the streets.
More than 200 people were transported by bus to two North York churches that offered shelter and access to food and showers.
Organizer Kizito Musabimana, also executive director of the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre, said the group is working to extend the shelter arrangements with the churches as long as they are needed, but he is hopeful the governments will step up to provide more permanent solutions immediately.
“This initiative is the community saying we cannot allow our people to be outside another night,” he said.
A GoFundMe campaign has also raised more than $60,000 to go toward food and clothing. Paramount Fine Foods founder Mohamad Fakih pledged to donate up to $20,000 for temporary housing and told The Globe he made a donation to support the temporary shelters set up at churches.
With a report from Laura Stone