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Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow during a press conference following a tour of Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, where African and Black refugees and asylum seekers received emergency shelter, in North York, Ont., on July 28.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Leaders at three Toronto churches that opened as temporary shelters for asylum seekers say there’s been little movement on providing them with permanent housing weeks after the city released a plan to address the crisis.

The churches, located in north Toronto, opened their doors mid-July to asylum seekers. Church leaders told reporters Friday that there are upwards of 600 people seeking shelter with the city’s 9,000-bed shelter system at capacity most nights. A month ago, that number was closer to 200 people.

Pastor Eddie Jjumba of Dominion Church International said some people at his church are sleeping curled up on chairs because there is no more space for cots. The shelter operations require a large volunteer effort as well as increasing costs for electricity, water and supplies.

“I am indignant. I am angry. I am disappointed,” he said. “We never prepared to stay as a shelter.”

Mayor Olivia Chow announced Friday the city would be issuing payments of $50,000 to the three churches to assist with urgent needs and also deploying six staff to two of the churches to provide support. But the churches say this isn’t enough and longer-term solutions are needed.

A crisis unfolded on Toronto streets last month with a growing number of people turned away from the full shelter system, many refugee claimants from African countries, and sleeping outside a downtown shelter intake centre. All three levels of government fought for weeks over who is responsible for footing the bill to provide more housing and during that time Black-led community groups worked to provide shelter and essentials to the refugee claimants.

Responding to the situation, Ms. Chow and city council endorsed a plan to immediately provide 250 temporary hotel spaces, launch a $13.4-million rent supplement program with the province to help more people pay for housing, and call on property owners with vacant units to rent them to refugee claimants.

But the 250 hotel spaces have been full for a month and the rent supplement program, known as the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit, just started accepting applications this week.

Through its request to the public to provide available rental accommodation, the city has received 70 offers that would provide 78 units of housing. Only 39 of these units were deemed suitable and referred to community partners to match with refugee claimants. The city expects people should be able to start moving in as of Sept. 1.

Toronto said the need remains great and is looking for additional shelter options, including hotel space outside of Toronto and sites that could be converted into housing. In a statement, the city reiterated its call for increased support from senior governments, including a federally-run refugee reception centre near the airport.

“The city is exploring a variety of possible options for medium- and long-term solutions; however, the financial challenges facing the city limit our ability to respond on a scale proportional to the swelling demand,” the statement said.

Ottawa announced last month it would be giving Toronto $97-million for additional shelter spaces, but the city said it won’t be enough. There are more than 3,200 refugee claimants in the city’s shelter system, accounting for 35 per cent. More than 200 people are left without a shelter space on an average night, with more than half being refugee claimants.

In a statement Friday, the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said there are currently no plans to establish a reception centre for refugees, but the government wants to work with the province and city to consider how to jointly support asylum claimants. Marc Miller, the new minister of the portfolio, is expected to meet with provincial and municipal leaders on this issue but a timeline hasn’t been set.

Caitlin Clark, spokeswoman for Premier Doug Ford, pointed to the province’s investment in the rent supplement program, expected to help move 1,350 into housing, and called on Ottawa to contribute to the program.

“We are once again urging the federal government to join us in supporting these vulnerable newcomers,” she said.

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