Corp Comm Connects

Toronto mayor instructs staff not to turn refugees, asylum seekers away from city shelters
Sept. 11, 2023

Mayor Olivia Chow says she has instructed city staff to ensure refugees and asylum seekers have access to beds in Toronto's main shelter system when spaces become available.

In a statement on Friday, Chow told CBC Toronto that she has told staff to follow a motion passed by council in July that reverses a policy adopted by the city in May under Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie.

Under the previous policy, which took effect June 1, refugees and asylum seekers were turned away from the main shelter system and directed to federal shelter programs when they called the city's central intake phone line. Chow said the procedure has now changed.

According to the July motion, the city is required to ensure everyone "regardless of status" is able to access the shelter system when beds are available.

"I have spoken with city staff and they will now ensure refugees can access available emergency shelter space though central intake, as per my motion at council," Chow said in the statement.

But Chow said Toronto's emergency homeless shelter system remains full. Currently, there are more than 3,400 refugees in the shelter system and that number is expected to increase, she added.

"At council this week, we reiterated our ask of the federal government for assistance in providing a sustainable, long-term solution. Everyone deserves a safe, stable roof over their heads."

As a result of the previous policy, refugees and asylum seekers ended up sleeping on city sidewalks outside a homeless support centre at 129 Peter St. downtown as the city and federal government went back and forth over shelter funding. Black-led churches stepped up to provide shelter for people sleeping on the ground.

On July 18, the federal government agreed to provide $97 million and the province and city each pledged additional money to free up spaces in the shelter system. On July 19, city council passed Chow's motion directing the city to ensure there is equal access to the shelter system.

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker, said city staff were still turning refugees and asylum seekers away despite that motion.

"This practice of separating refugees and denying them shelters based on their status is xenophobic and racist. And it's just not appropriate. It's not acceptable," Lam said on Friday before Chow intervened.

Lorraine Lam
Outreach worker Lorraine Lam says: 'This practice of separating refugees and denying them shelters based on their status is xenophobic and racist. And it's just not appropriate. It's not acceptable.' (CBC)
Toronto has refugee shelter programs in addition to its base shelter system.

"Refugee-serving programs are distinct, as they include wrap-around supports that are specifically geared towards helping refugees and refugee claimants get established and build connections in the community," the city said in an August 2022 news release.

According to the city, there are 10,244 people in its shelters. A total of 3,418 are refugee claimants. Of this number, 1,418 refugees are in the non-refugee shelter system. A total of 1,200 additional refugees are supported outside the shelter system.

"If a refugee arrives at a base system shelter, and there's an empty bed, they can access it," the city says.

Strain on shelter system increasing, senior official says
Gordon Tanner, general manager of the city's Shelter Support and Housing Administration, said in a statement on Friday that city staff are no longer directing refugees and asylum seekers away from the base shelter system.

"After discussions with the mayor's office, the city will work to match refugee claimants to any bed that becomes available in the shelter system to meet their needs," Tanner said.

"Despite these efforts, the fact remains that the city's shelter system is full."

Hundreds of asylum seekers, refugees forced to leave Toronto church for other shelter
Toronto mayor apologizes to asylum seekers who slept on streets as advocates call for action
Tanner said about 9,000 people are using the city's shelter system, another 1,000 are being supported outside of the system in hotels and programs run by the Canadian Red Cross.

He said the city was unable to find space for 305 people last night alone.

"Unfortunately, that is an all-too-common number," Tanner said.

"While the city continues to do all it can to provide refugee claimants the dignified welcome that they deserve, Toronto is experiencing a worsening humanitarian crisis.

"The strain on our system is at an all time high and is increasing. We are -- once again -- calling on our federal and provincial partners to provide the necessary funds and long-term strategy to provide much-needed services for this vulnerable population."