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Asylum seekers sleeping on Toronto streets as at-capacity city shelters overwhelmed

Two weeks after the City of Toronto said it would begin referring refugee claimants seeking beds in its at-capacity shelter system to federal programs, asylum seekers who recently arrived in Canada are struggling to find places to sleep.

Birck Teklau arrived in Toronto from Ethiopia on June 3 hoping to claim asylum because, he says, of political persecution in his home country.

The 34-year-old says he’s been sleeping on the streets ever since — after being turned away from the city’s shelter system day after day.

“I tried many times…. They say that we don’t have [a] place,” Teklau said in an interview. “I never expected this from Canada.”

And he’s not alone. 

Teklau was one of more than a dozen asylum seekers from Africa who went to city hall Wednesday hoping to bring attention to their inability to find housing.

The city says it needs more financial support from the federal government to handle increasing demand for emergency shelter by residents and refugees, but it’s unclear when or if that additional money will arrive. In the meantime, dozens of asylum seekers are stuck in limbo, unable to access the city’s shelter system and lacking support from the federal government.

Local organization struggles to fill the gap

On May 31, Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said the city’s approximately 9,000-bed shelter system was at capacity nightly, and it could no longer cope with the high number of refugee claimants hoping to access a bed. She said the city had no choice but to start referring them to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada programs — though there are currently no federal shelter programs that provide housing to people in Toronto, according to the city.

City officials say over the past 20 months, the number of asylum seekers in Toronto’s shelter system has multiplied by more than 500 per cent, from a low of about 530 people a night in September of 2021 to more than 2,800 in May of 2023. 

The city budgets each year for 500 shelter spaces for asylum seekers per night, but an additional 2,300 refugee claimants were being accommodated despite the city having no additional funding for them, the city said in a news release at the time. 

As a result, hundreds of people seeking shelter — both refugee claimants and non-refugee claimants — are being turned away each day, according to Gord Tanner, the general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division.

“We do admit people when there’s space, but currently there’s just no space,” Tanner said in an interview.

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker and organizer with the advocacy group Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said the city’s decision effectively bans new asylum seekers from accessing the core shelter system, instead limiting them to refugee-specific supports — which the city admits are already underfunded and at capacity.

“What that means is you end up with a whole lot of people who literally have nowhere to go,” Lam said.

“You’re basically creating a separate ghetto of individuals who are deemed sort of like second class [or] third class people in the city who don’t get access to resources.”

A woman stands in the plaza in front of Toronto's city hall.
Mesarat Demeke, president of the Ethiopian Association of Greater Toronto Area, says her organization has been overwhelmed with requests for assistance from asylum seekers who recently arrived in Canada from Africa. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC Toronto)

The lack of open beds at city shelters has left local organizations struggling to help those in need.

Meserat Demeke, president of the Ethiopian Association of the Greater Toronto Area, said volunteers with her organization found more than 20 Ethiopian newcomers sleeping on the sidewalk Monday outside of a downtown homeless support centre.

She said her organization has been helping 60 to 70 asylum seekers who recently arrived in Canada from Africa but have no housing. The association has been fundraising to help purchase hotel rooms and rental housing, but is running out of money, she said.

“We are scrambling and we are on the verge of really burning out,” said Demeke. “It’s not sustainable.”

City says federal government ‘turned its back’

Tanner said the federal government has failed to provide the city with funding this year to help cover the cost of housing new arrivals — funding it has provided in recent years, which the city has come to rely on.

Toronto needs $97 million this year and a “fair, sustainable funding model” going forward to to continue offering shelter support to refugees, the city said in a statement.

“We have a federal government that’s turned its back on its responsibilities and supporting the City of Toronto and meeting the needs of of this vulnerable group,” Tanner said. 

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in an email that the federal government provides support for asylum claimants seeking emergency shelter through the Interim Housing Assistance Program. Jefferey MacDonald said the program has provided $700 million to provinces and municipalities since 2017, including approximately $215 million to the City of Toronto.

MacDonald said the government also provides temporary accommodation in hotels for migrants who entered Canada at the unofficial Roxham Road border crossing. Since last summer, IRCC has bused thousands of migrants who arrived in Quebec to cities like Ottawa, Cornwall, Ont., and Niagara Falls, Ont., as Quebec’s shelter system — and hotels rented by IRCC — reached capacity.

Tanner said asylum seekers in Toronto should also be put up in hotels.

“We don’t have a pathway currently into federally supported shelter services and that’s exactly what we need,” he said.

Until then, the city said it’s referring asylum seekers to daytime drop-ins, meal programs, and Service Canada for support. 

But that’s little comfort for asylum seekers like Teklau, who just want a roof over their heads.

“I don’t want [words]. I need … immediate action, right now,” he said.

On Thursday, mayoral candidate and Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto—St. Paul’s) presented a motion to council calling for the city to work with the Ethiopian Association of Greater Toronto Area and other settlement organizations to provide “any possible form of shelter on an emergency basis to refugee claimants.”

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