New concerns raised for dozens of refugees sleeping on Toronto streets as cold weather approaches

Asylum seekers camp on the street outside the city’s shelter intake office, waiting for available space in an overcrowded shelter system. Erica Natividad on concerns over a repeat of unhoused people being turned away from shelters over the summer.

By Erica Natividad and Meredith Bond

The number of refugees sleeping on the sidewalk outside of Toronto’s shelter intake office is increasing once again – raising new concerns about how the city will cope with the influx as the winter months approach.

Ahmed Salmi from Nigeria tells CityNews he has been sleeping outside for the past three days now with no sign on when or if he’ll be able to move to a shelter.

“They told me they will be trying to locate shelter for me, but at the end of the day they will tell me there’s no shelter at the moment. That I should keep trying,” said Salmi.

Others CityNews spoke with had been there for up to 15 days in the heat and the rain.

Diana Chan McNally with All Saints Church, one of the organizations that has helped refugees with shelter and supplies, said she’s not surprised that what they saw at the beginning of the summer is starting up again.

“We knew that eventually we’d see more people outside simply because we have no space in the shelter system and we have hundreds of people arriving every single week with absolutely nowhere to go,” said Chan McNally.

It was back in June that Toronto began turning away large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from its at-capacity shelter system and referring them to federal programs.

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That month, the number of unhoused people being turned away daily hit a record high.

The pressure has continued since then. Right now, shelters are being forced to turn away close to 300 people per night.

“Half of the people coming to us every day that we turn away are refugees and the number keeps increasing. We are now housing close to 5,000 refugees and we have no homes for them,” said Mayor Olivia Chow on Thursday.

“What we’re finding is that no matter how fast we are moving to move people from homelessness to a state of homes, that’s our goal in all of this, there are more people that have the needs than we can accommodate,” said City of Toronto spokesperson Lindsay Broadhead.

Broadhead said shelters have been at or beyond capacity since at least the beginning of the summer with over 9,000 people currently staying within the system.

She said the problem will only get worse as the colder months approach. Toronto continues to press Ottawa for help, saying it will be impossible to keep up with demand without assistance.

“We don’t want to have to say, mid-winter, ‘I told you so’ to the federal government. It’s time that they step up and pay for the services that, frankly, they’re responsible for.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation in Toronto “unacceptable” at a press conference in Vaughan on Thursday.

“This is something that we’ve taken very seriously for many years now and have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to provinces and municipalities over the past years to support the infrastructure for asylum seekers, but we know there’s more to do,” said Trudeau.

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Ontario recently announced it is investing another $42 million through the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit program. While Chow said that will help ease the pressure on the shelter system, she along with community and advocacy groups continue to call for more help, particularly from Ottawa.

“I think many of us have pointed out that Ukrainian refugees, for example, have a very different approach to how they’re being resettled in Canada while folks from Africa, which is the majority in Toronto, aren’t seeing the same resources,” said Chan McNally.

She added for those looking to help, there are things everyone can do.

“Continue to lobby with your MPs, your MPPs and demand that they actually provide funding and resources so that people do not have to live outside their first Canadian winter ever on the sidewalk.”

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