‘It’s an emergency’: Officials meet to address refugees stuck sleeping on downtown sidewalk

Refugee support groups are calling on all levels of government to meet their support obligations. Mark McAllister speaks to a man forced to sleep on a sidewalk, who says he still hopes Canada will help those in his situation

Community groups are calling out all levels of government over a growing group of asylum seekers that have been forced to sleep on a downtown sidewalk outside Toronto’s shelter intake office — often through extreme heat and rainfall.

On Friday afternoon, an emergency meeting between city staff and officials from the provincial and federal governments took place as the three levels of government addressed the ongoing refugee crisis in the city and develop some sort of path forward.

A number of organizations that aim to help refugees delivered a news conference outside the shelter at 129 Peter Street on Friday morning, ahead of the meeting of officials. The groups are calling for urgent action from government’s to address the crisis, saying they are appalled that so many have been left stranded on the street.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow called the meeting “productive and focused.”

“The City, Provincial and Federal governments all see and understand the urgent need to address the immediate crisis, and to develop and implement longer-term solutions so that newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers have the support and shelter they deserve,” she said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.

Chow said all parties would reconvene on Tuesday with the goal of bringing specific actions for space and resources that can be immediately implemented.

“We need an answer today,” says Kizito Musabimana from the Rwandan Canadian Health Centre. “We’ve been seeing the numbers at 129 Peter grow every day for the last two months.”

“The federal government is pointing fingers, the city is pointing fingers and saying they need help, and the provincial government is sometimes not at the table,” he says. “We want everyone to get at the table and answer to everybody here.”

The dozens of refugees, mostly from African countries, have been camping out on the sidewalk for several days, many using garbage bags to cover and protect their belongings. The city’s at-capacity shelter system has been turning away asylum seekers since the beginning of June after instituting a policy to instead refer them to federal programs.

Peter Street shelter

Refugee housing advocates hold a news conference on Peter Street in downtown Toronto on July 14, 2023 where dozens of asylum seekers have been forced to sleep outside while waiting for shelter beds. CITYNEWS/Ryan Vallee

The city has said it needs more money from Ottawa to accommodate the influx, claiming the federal government has promised $97 million which they have not delivered on. In one of her first remarks after being sworn in as mayor, Chow pressed Ottawa for an additional $160 million, calling the crisis a federal responsibility.

The federal government said Friday that “housing and supports for asylum seekers are the responsibility of provinces and municipalities.”

“The federal government has been providing assistance and will continue to do so, but we need full engagement from all levels of government at the table,” Bahoz Dara Aziz, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser, wrote in a statement.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino confirmed a previously announced $2 million investment in JVS Toronto on Friday morning. The funding aims to help with pre-arrival settlement services for new Canadians but falls well short of what the city has been asking for.

The Ontario government claimed Ottawa was “underfunding” the province by $480 million for housing and homelessness.

“Resettlement and support for refugees is a federal responsibility,” Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, wrote in a statement.

“These dollars are needed now more than ever to support our most vulnerable Ontarians and build strong communities in every corner of the province.”

Musabimana came to Canada as a refugee in the 2000s and says, while he was met with his own struggles, he was greeted with a much more supportive system.

“The country I came to was not this,” he says.

Meserat Demeke, the President of the Ethiopian Association of the Greater Toronto Area, spoke to Breakfast Television on Friday morning about the shock some of the asylum seekers stuck on Peter street are experiencing about being forced to sleep on the sidewalk.

“We were quite surprised this was happening in Canada,” said Demeke. “Most African people, when they go to North America or another country, they think it is a land of opportunity, or a better life.”

Demeke said the refugees in this case come from all walks of life, including many who are well-educated and left good jobs in their home countries. This would be their first time experiencing homelessness.

“This experience is quite shocking for them, to find themselves sleeping on the street in a country where they have no one.”

Some of those camping have told CityNews they were instructed to head to the referral centre when they arrived in Canada, only to end up sleeping outside for weeks.

“They were told to come here to Peter Street,” says a spokesperson from the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, speaking on Friday. “They were then told to call central intake, who told them to call Service Canada, who told them to call central intake, who told them to call Service Canada.”

With files from Laura Carney and The Canadian Press

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