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Former resident of the Matthew House Jose Gustavo Salcedo (centre) recalls difficult memories while speaking with founding director Anne Woolger (left), manager Guisela Guillen (right), staff and current residents, during a visit there, in Toronto, on March 22.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of refugee claimants are in homeless shelters across Toronto, as stays grow longer amid a housing affordability crisis and a lack of federal support for an increasing number of asylum seekers.

According to city data, refugees and asylum seekers accounted for 30 per cent of total occupancy in the municipal shelter system as of March, with average stays reaching four to six months. The pressure on the shelter system has prompted the city’s government to press Ottawa for more funding. And while support for 2023 is included in the recent federal budget, it is not a permanent commitment – as has long been called for.

And service providers say a recent decision to close Roxham Road in Quebec, where tens of thousands of people have streamed into Canada at what had become an unofficial border crossing, will do little to address the problem in the long term. Half of the migrants in Toronto shelters arrived through Pearson Airport, not Roxham Road, according to the city, and thousands of people are already in Canada and in need of support.

“We’re running about 9,000 beds per night in the shelter system, and right now about 2,700 of those beds on a nightly basis are being utilized by refugee claimants,” Gord Tanner, head of the city’s shelter division, said in a recent interview.

“We are trying our best to string people into the programs that best meet their needs. But at this time, it’s been very difficult with the high number of people arriving.”

The federal government has faced political pressure in recent months to address the rise in asylum seekers entering the country, particularly from Quebec Premier François Legault, who has protested the strain that the influx of irregular crossings has put on his province’s social services. Smaller communities such as Niagara Falls, where the federal government has transferred thousands of migrants, in an attempt to ease the pressures on Quebec, have begun to raise similar concerns.

Late last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden announced the abrupt closing of Roxham Road after a renegotiation of the Safe Third Country Agreement. Instead, Canada has committed to accepting 15,000 refugees from Central and South America over the coming year.

Though the goal of the move is to stem the flow of irregular migration into the country, advocates and front-line workers say the closing will lead only to more perilous crossings at more isolated border points – and does nothing to assist the thousands of people who are already here and struggling to find support and housing.

“Yes, the numbers will be down, naturally – but at what cost? The safety and well-being of refugees?” said Anne Woolger, the founding director of Matthew House, one of a handful of non-profit, faith-based shelters for refugees in Toronto that operate independently of the city system.

In Toronto, where Mr. Tanner said at least half of asylum seekers are arriving via Pearson Airport or another official border crossing, the number of asylum seekers in shelters has been consistent since roughly 2017 (other than the period during the COVID-19 pandemic when border closings all but halted immigration). And the flow is likely to continue.

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Mr. Salcedo after meeting staff and current residents of the residence.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

At the same time, the city’s housing crisis has grown worse, with a rental vacancy rate below 2 per cent and costs that have climbed sharply in recent years.

City council has approved the creation of a dedicated shelter stream for refugee claimants, but the current number of spaces is nowhere near enough.

The city devotes roughly 10 per cent of the shelter budget specifically to beds for asylum seekers – which equals roughly 500 spots – through organizations such as Sojourn House and Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, which include settlement support services on-site. They rely on federal reimbursements to fund additional spaces.

But they are still consistently hundreds of spaces short, leaving as many as 30 per cent of asylum seekers seeking shelter to rely on the base system – which could include contracted hotel rooms or large congregant shelters, and do not include any settlement supports.

The system as a whole is chronically full. The average number of people turned away from the system each day in January was 117 (though the city could not say how many were asylum seekers), according to city data. In February, that number was 72.

At Sojourn House – an eight-storey building in the downtown core with 76 temporary shelter beds and 52 transitional apartment units – there is a waiting list more than 100 names long.

“We’ve had men sit here and cry, not to be sent back to the shelter,” executive director Debbie Hill-Corrigan said.

In mid-March, Sojourn House had four cots set up in the TV room for additional residents the shelter team agreed to take in for a few days. They were still there a month later.

Though Sojourn House is considered an emergency shelter, Ms. Hill-Corrigan said, “I think you have to consider that we’ve become housing, because it takes people so long to move.”

The shelter workers do have successes, Ms. Hill-Corrigan stresses. Last year alone they were able to house more than 100 families. But with work permit backlogs and inadequate, stagnant social assistance rates, it’s never been more difficult.

“People think when they come here, ‘Oh, I’m just going to get my own apartment.’ But really all they can afford is a room – and even rooms they can’t afford anymore,” she said.

Shelter manager Fatima Saliu-Ediagbonya said there are added barriers for the shelter’s clients, who can often not supply references or credit checks or first and last month’s rent.

“We’re literally begging landlords,” she said.

Unlike government-sponsored refugees, who are typically entitled to certain supports for a year, there is no similar system for asylum seekers who arrive unannounced, either at a border crossing or a place such as Roxham Road.

“They’ve simply been numbered among the homeless, and they’ve been essentially a municipal issue of homelessness,” Ms. Woolger said.

In addition, refugee claimants are also now facing months-long waits for work permits, and social assistance rates that in today’s rental market can barely cover a room in a house.

“Securing housing has shifted from an important settlement priority to the pre-eminent challenge,” the Ontario Coalition of Service Providers for Refugee Claimants (of which Ms. Woolger and Matthew House are members) wrote in an open letter to all three levels of government last spring.

The City of Toronto has long called on the federal government for support.

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Ms. Woolger points to the location of Matthew House on a map.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The 2023 federal budget did outline $530-million for temporary lodging for asylum seekers, through a year-long extension of the Interim Housing Assistance Program – which reimburses provinces and municipalities for hotel and catering costs.

Mr. Tanner said he was “very pleased to see funding for short-term accommodation for asylum seekers in the 2023 federal budget,” and with the city’s costs for 2023 projected at $97-million, hopes Toronto is able to “secure an appropriate share.”

As a recent city report noted: “The current pattern – where the city responds to successive crises by providing assistance with the promise of being reimbursed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) at a future date – is not sustainable, efficient or optimal.”