12.6 C
Saturday, September 23, 2023
HomeCanadaBreaking: Reports a Surge of Refugee Claimants Overwhelming Ottawa Shelters

Breaking: Reports a Surge of Refugee Claimants Overwhelming Ottawa Shelters


Ottawa’s homeless shelters are seeing a surge of asylum seekers arriving at their doors, raising fears that the refugee housing crisis overwhelming Toronto shelters could spill over into the capital.

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Mission, said record numbers of migrants have arrived at the Waller Street shelter in recent weeks.

Tilley was “blown away” when he saw the data. Of 228 new admissions to the shelter since the beginning of June, 87 were newcomers. He said most of them were refugee claimants.

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

“We are already overcapacity to deal with Ottawa’s homeless population,” he explained. “So we’re certainly struggling to manage this spillover.”

Martine Dore, director of programs and services at Cornerstone Housing for Women, has seen a 50 percent increase in new arrivals seeking shelter there in the past three months. Once again, the majority are asylum seekers. 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 face here as we move forward,” Dore said, adding that his shelter is already chronically full.

“It’s just one more strain on a system that is already severely overloaded.”

‘I was afraid’

Canada had processed nearly 60,000 applications for asylum seekers as of June, the highest midyear count dating back to at least 2015.

Thousands have turned up at Toronto emergency shelters. The number of asylum seekers there rose from 530 a night in September 2021 to 2,800 this May, leading dozens to camp outside an admissions office downtown.

Asylum seekers from Africa and elsewhere are photographed outside the intake office of a shelter at Peter St. and Richmond St. in Toronto, on July 14. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Data from the City of Ottawa shows that the number of new arrivals to the single adult emergency shelter system has nearly doubled in just six months, from 121 in January to 222 in July. Newcomers to family shelters dropped slightly over the same period.

The data does not break out how many of those new arrivals are refugee claimants coming to seek asylum. They face special challenges, arriving without a work permit and lacking the level of federal support provided to sponsored refugees.

Tilley said that most of the applicants who come to the Mission are from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Nigeria.

Femi Biobaku was among them. She arrived by air in the early stages of the current influx to Ottawa, after fleeing Nigeria last year.

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

A Mission social worker referred him to Matthew House, a transitional housing program that provides specialized support for asylum seekers. Tilley said that’s the best place for people like Biobaku to get the services they need.

Biobaku said that Matthew House saved his life.

“In maybe 28 days that I spent (at the Mission), I didn’t sleep. But the first time I walked into Matthew House, I slept like I was in my house, my home,” he said.

Without that reference to Matthew House, he doubts he could have held on.

“I would have killed myself, because I don’t know what my life would have been like out there,” Biobaku said. “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 is no place to move them. There is just no housing,” Tilley said. “We are linking arms as we try to approach the federal government and immigration to purchase services to move these people. But that’s where the bottleneck is.”

Dore has seen the same dearth of options.

“All the resources are stuck,” he said.

Some refugees ‘sleeping on the street’

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

“We get calls every day, and we have to turn people away. The trend is that more and more people come,” he said.

“If there is no space, they end up staying in the shelter system, or some of them end up sleeping out in the open, on the streets.”

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

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

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

Ottawa Mission executive director Peter Tilley.
Ottawa Mission executive director Peter Tilley says the number of immigrants arriving at the Waller Street shelter is at record levels. (CBC)

Tilley sees housing affordability as a central piece of the puzzle. Competition for rental housing is so fierce that landlords can choose tenants. And when homeowners get picky, shelter-in-place applicants with no credit history are likely to be last on their list, according to Reesor-McDowell.

“Even though, legally, they’re not supposed to, the owners will choose someone over a newcomer who hasn’t been in Canada very long,” he said. “It makes it very challenging.”

Where before it took around three months to find someone to live in permanent housing at Matthew House, now it 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 setting as a possible future for Ottawa.

“There is a very high risk of something like this happening in Ottawa and across the country, because once you get to a tipping point … it doesn’t take a lot more people to have real stress,” he said. .

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

How to prevent a crisis

Tilley worries that if the refugee claimants end up staying at the Mission, they could be stuck.

“They are very vulnerable, and of course these new Canadians are at risk from all the factors that we see contributing to people being homeless or on the streets,” he said.

While the Mission provides a wide range of services, from mental health support to palliative care, Matthew House is best equipped to help asylum seekers overcome 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 support payments from Ontario Works and then get a work permit. They can then find a job, which makes housing much easier to find and maintain.

Biobaku, for example, now works on the furniture program at Matthew House. At the shelter, those crucial first steps may not happen so quickly.

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

Although the problem seems daunting, he doesn’t think it’s very difficult to prevent such a crisis. He said his program could easily be expanded, opening more and more homes and helping refugees quickly transition into housing at a fraction of the cost of keeping them in a shelter.

“If we can divert those people out of the shelter system, and it’s cheaper and with better results, there won’t be a homelessness 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 the point. It doesn’t provide a dollar to Matthew House, she said.

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

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

He pointed to the Interim Housing Assistance Program which aims to address “extraordinary interim housing pressures resulting from the increased number of asylum seekers.” He said the city of Ottawa received more than $26 million under the program between 2017 and 2022, and the program is now being expanded.

The department also provides temporary accommodation and services to asylum seekers who entered Canada through Roxham Road, an irregular crossing into Quebec. That includes 115 rooms in an Ottawa hotel.

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

“I would love for all levels of government to work together on this, to create some avenues for organizations like ours, because if we open one house a month there are ten fewer people on the streets or in shelters,” he said.

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

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories