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Surge of refugee claimants overwhelming some Ottawa shelters

Ottawa homeless shelters are seeing a surge of asylum seekers showing up at their doors, raising fears that the refugee housing crisis overwhelming Toronto shelters could be spreading to the capital.

Peter Tilley, CEO of the Ottawa Mission, said a record number of migrants have come to the shelter on Waller Street in recent weeks.

Tilley was “floored” when he saw the data. Of 228 new intakes at the shelter since the beginning of June, 87 were newcomers. He said most of those were refugee claimants.

“That would be more than triple, even quadruple, the amount of refugee claimants we would normally have,” he said.

“We’re already at over capacity dealing with the homeless population of Ottawa,” he explained. “So we’re certainly struggling to handle this overflow.”

Martine Dore, director of programs and services at Cornerstone Housing for Women, has seen a 50 per cent increase in newcomers seeking shelter there over just the past three months. Again, most are refugee claimants. She fears for what will happen if the influx pushes more people onto the streets.

“I saw the stories about Toronto and it broke my heart, and it made me very anxious about what we’re going to be facing here as we move forward,” said Dore, who added her shelter is already chronically full.

“It’s just one more pressure on a system that’s already severely overtaxed.”

‘I was afraid’

Canada had processed nearly 60,000 applications from asylum seekers as of June, the highest mid-year count going back to at least 2015.

Thousands have shown up at Toronto’s emergency shelters. The number of asylum seekers there rose from 530 per night in September 2021 to 2,800 this May, and led to dozens camping out in front of an intake office downtown.

Luggages wrapped up in blue and black plastic bags with some people standing behind them.
Asylum seekers from Africa and other locales are photographed outside of a shelter intake office at Peter St. and Richmond St. in Toronto, on July 14. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

City of Ottawa data shows that the number of newcomers in the emergency shelter system for single adults has almost doubled in just six months, from 121 in January to 222 in July. Newcomers in family shelters were down slightly over the same period.

The data does not break down how many of those newcomers are refugee claimants coming to seek asylum. They face special challenges, since they arrive with no work permit and lack the level of federal support afforded to sponsored refugees.

Tilley said most of the claimants coming to the Mission are from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Nigeria.

Femi Biobaku was among them. He came by air at the early stages of the current influx to Ottawa, after fleeing from Nigeria last year.

Biobaku said he lived as a “hunted person” back home and had no choice but to leave. But the month he spent in an eight-man dorm at the Mission re-traumatized him.

A case worker at the Mission referred him to Matthew House, a transitional housing program that provides specialized supports for refugee claimants. Tilley said that’s the best place for people like Biobaku to get the services they need.

Biobaku said Matthew House saved his life.

“In maybe 28 days I spent (at the Mission), I did not sleep. But the first time I entered Matthew House, I slept like I was in my house, my home,” he said.

Without that referral to Matthew House, he doubts he could have endured.

“I would have committed suicide, because I don’t know what my life would have been like out there,” said Biobaku. “I was afraid.”

But now Matthew House is so overwhelmed that it turned down about 100 calls last month for lack of space, most of them from shelters.

“There’s no place to move them into. There’s just no housing,” Tilley said. “We’re throwing up our arms as we try and reach out to the federal government and immigration to acquire services to move these people on. But that’s where the bottleneck is.”

Dore has seen the same dearth of options.

“Every resource is jammed right up,” she said.

Some refugees ‘sleeping rough’

Matthew House has expanded its operations rapidly to keep up with demand, going from eight to 92 beds dedicated to asylum seekers in just three years. But even that pace can’t keep up, executive director Allan Reesor-McDowell said.

“We are getting calls every day, and we have to turn people away. The trend is just more and more people coming,” he said.

“If there’s no space, they just end up staying in the shelter system, or some of them end up sleeping rough, on the streets.”

There are currently 135 people living unsheltered on Ottawa streets, according to the city, though there is no recent data on how many are refugee claimants. The city said it responded to 190 encampments within Ottawa this year, providing outreach services before, in some cases, dismantling the encampments.

Tilley said there was a “mini-encampment” of five to eight people right next to the Mission last week. Police broke it up on Tuesday, but it was back again by Wednesday night.

“It’s an ongoing theme at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

The Ottawa Mission's executive director, Peter Tilley.
The Ottawa Mission’s executive director, Peter Tilley, says the number of migrants coming to the Waller Street shelter is at record levels. (CBC)

Tilley sees housing affordability as a central piece in the puzzle. Competition for rental housing is so fierce, that landlords have their choice of tenants. And when landlords get choosy, refugee claimants with no credit history are likely to be the last on their list, according to Reesor-McDowell.

“Even though, legally, they’re not supposed to, landlords will pick someone over a newcomer who doesn’t have a long time in Canada,” he said. “It makes it very challenging.”

Where it once took about three months to find someone living at Matthew House permanent housing, it now takes six.

“Half the number of people in a year can come through our program,” Reesor-McDowell said.

If nothing changes, he sees the Toronto scenario as a possible future for Ottawa.

“There’s a very high risk of something like that playing out in Ottawa and all over the country, because once you reach sort of a tipping point … it doesn’t take that many more people to take a real strain,” he said.

“We’re kind of there, we’re right at that point where it’s going to get bad really quickly.”

How to prevent a crisis

Tilley worries that if refugee claimants wind up staying at the Mission, they might get stuck.

“They’re very vulnerable and of course they, these new Canadians, are at risk of all of the factors that we see that contribute to people remaining homeless or on the streets,” he said.

While the Mission provides a wide range of services from mental health supports to hospice care, Matthew House is better equipped to support refugee claimants through the legal hurdles and cultural adjustment they face after arriving in Canada to seek asylum.

Reesor-McDowell said the first step is to connect them with a lawyer, get them on Ontario Works support payments and then get a work permit. Then they can find a job, which makes housing much easier to find and maintain.

Biobaku, for instance, is now employed at Matthew House’s furniture program. In the shelter, those early, crucial steps might not happen as quickly.

“People get stuck in limbo, and then more people come … and you get a homelessness crisis.” Reeser-McDowell said.

Though the problem looks daunting, he doesn’t think it’s very hard to prevent that crisis. He said his program could easily scale up, opening more and more homes and helping refugees quickly transition to housing at a fraction of the cost of keeping them in a shelter.

“If we can divert those people from the shelter system — and it’s cheaper and better outcomes — there’s not going to be a homeless crisis in Ottawa,” he said. “We can avoid what we’re seeing in Toronto.”

But while the city has been a strong partner, he said the federal government is missing in action. It doesn’t provide a dollar to Matthew House, he said.

A building closeup with a sign that reads 'Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada.'
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement housing and services for asylum seekers are generally a provincial and municipal responsibility. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC)

In a statement, the federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said housing and services for asylum seekers are “generally a provincial and municipal responsibility.” However, it said it is still helping to ensure asylum seekers are housed.

It pointed to the Interim Housing Assistance Program that aims to address “extraordinary interim housing pressures resulting from the increased numbers of asylum claimants.” It said the City of Ottawa has received more than $26 million under the program between 2017 and 2022, and the program is now being extended.

The department also provides temporary accommodations and services to asylum claimants that entered Canada through Roxham Road, an irregular crossing in Quebec. That includes 115 rooms in one Ottawa hotel.

Reesor-McDowell said governments need to stop wrangling over jurisdiction and quickly invest money in programs that work.

“I’d love for all levels of government to work together on this, create some avenues for organizations like ours, because if we open a house a month that’s ten less people on the streets or in the shelters,” he said.

“I don’t see why we can’t just keep doing that until we’ve met that demand.”

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