Coalition of community leaders demand action, funding for refugees and asylum seekers

A coalition of community leaders is urging the federal government to take immediate action to address the refugees crisis on Toronto's streets. As Tina Yazdani reports, funding is desperately needed for shelter this winter.

A coalition of community leaders is urging the federal government to take immediate action to address what they describe as a crisis on Toronto streets. Funding is desperately needed to shelter the growing number of refugees and frontline workers say the federal government has left them stranded in the bitter cold.

“Justin Trudeau you are the deciding factor as to whether people will die or suffer life-altering disability or have the warm, safe shelter that they need and is their human right,” said community and crisis outreach worker Diana Chan McNally during a meeting of 30 community, faith, and sector leaders at City Hall on Friday hosted by Ward 9 Davenport councillor Alejandra Bravo.

Thousands of African refugees have taken shelter in the basements of churches and inside a strip mall since the summer as religious organizations voluntarily took them in without government support. Many of those organizations are now tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

“The situation is wrong, it’s deeply wrong,” said John Ralston Saul, co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

“There are basically no government services for them and this simply is not normal, it’s not good, it is not what they used to call the Canadian way.”

As the temperatures drop and it gets colder, local leaders are urging the federal government to commit $200 million this year and $250 million in funding in 2024 to help the city meet its shelter needs. Others are calling on the government to open federally owned buildings and spaces in Toronto to serve as immediate temporary shelters.

“It’s shameful that we are seeing more support for the city’s shelter system and newly arrived refugees from Doug Ford, than the Trudeau government,” said Saman Tabasinejad, the Executive Director of Progress Toronto.

Dominion Church International in North York is one of the organizations that stepped up to help with the refugee crisis, spending upwards of $800,000 since July to shelter 250 people. The city has reimbursed them $190,000 for their efforts.

“We have spoken for seven months now about the same issue. Either we have not been heard, or someone is hearing us and they don’t care to respond,” said Rev. Eddy Jumba.

During a funding announcement Thursday in which the federal government promised $471 million in funding to build new homes, Justin Trudeau insisted he has responded.

“We have stepped up over the past year, hundreds of millions of dollars across the country in support for asylum seekers and we will continue to,” the Prime Minister said. “I’ve already had great conversations with Mayor Chow and we’re gonna continue to work together on these issues.”

Earlier this year, Toronto City Council set aside close to a million dollars to reimburse the churches for costs incurred. But amid a funding battle with Ottawa, Mayor Olivia Chow warned that City Hall has no more money to give. And while she remains hopeful following her meeting with Trudeau on this issue, advocates are not as certain.

“The situation on the ground is urgent. Immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants are a federal responsibility,” said Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Toronto has seen the number of refugee claimants in the shelter system increase from a low of 537 people in September 2021 to 4,045 as of Dec. 17. In November alone, the shelter system admitted 685 new claimants, while housing just 334 people that same month.

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