Refugees and their families live in makeshift shelters at the Christian worship center Miracle Arena For All Nations in Vaughan, just outside of Toronto.

Refugees and their families live in a makeshift shelter recently at the Christian worship center Miracle Arena For All Nations in Vaughan, just outside of Toronto.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Churches, nonprofits house refugees amid shelter crunch in Toronto

As Chicago dealt with a shortage of shelter beds, Toronto was also managing a shelter crisis amid an increase in people seeking refuge in Canada.

Elvia Malagón is a Pulitzer Center Richard C. Longworth Media Fellow.

TORONTO — At first glance, the hotel room looks like a standard budget hotel with two beds, a television and a mini refrigerator.

But this hotel — at the edge of Toronto — isn’t open to the public. It’s staffed by Homes First, a Toronto-based nonprofit, and the nearly 400 people living out of the hotel rooms are “refugee claimants” — immigrants who fled persecution in their home countries.

Inside one room, a woman rests on a bed, browsing through her phone while another woman works on a “Friends”-themed puzzle on the floor.

“As long as I have a shelter over my head, I’m thankful,” said Clarissa, 65, who lives in the repurposed hotel.

The space is one way that nonprofit organizations and churches in the Toronto area are stepping in to house immigrants amid a shelter crunch.

Images of immigrants sleeping on Chicago streets last summer made news just as the city was dealing with its own crisis — hundreds of people sleeping inside and outside police stations.

In Chicago, more than 43,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in the city seeking shelter. Many were bused as part of a political stunt by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration.

Many of the refugee claimants the Chicago Sun-Times spoke to said they viewed Toronto as a welcoming place for immigrants. Many flew on their own to Toronto and then petitioned for asylum.

In four years, Ontario — the province in which Toronto is located — has experienced a nearly 140% increase in the number of refugee claimants, the term many use in Canada to describe someone petitioning the government for asylum.

The challenges in Toronto and Chicago highlight the growing need for basic necessities like housing and work as more people are displaced around the world.

Anne Woogler, founding director of an organization that provides shelter for refugee claimants, noticed the disparities between refugee claimants and government-sponsored refugees who applied for the status abroad. The level of persecution, fear and trauma was often similar, but the two groups weren’t eligible for the same benefits, she said.

“The sponsored refugees — they were the fortunate ones,” said Woogler, of Matthew House. “They had permanent status upon arrival, they were given vouchers for new furniture, new clothing, new everything when they moved out. They were kind of being given the Rolls-Royce treatment, whereas the claimants were like the hitchhikers.”

People’s possessions can be seen in the windows at a hotel — formerly a Knights Inn — being run by Homes First, a Toronto-based nonprofit housing organization. The nearly 400 people temporarily living out of the hotel rooms are “refugee claimants” — immigrants who fled persecution in their home country.

People’s possessions can be seen in the windows at a hotel — formerly a Knights Inn — being run by Homes First, a Toronto-based nonprofit housing organization. The nearly 400 people temporarily living out of the hotel rooms are “refugee claimants” — immigrants who fled persecution in their home country.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Holistic approach to housing

Homes First has put more emphasis on helping refugee clients find stable work, said Michael Potvin, director of client services. That has meant that, on average, refugees are staying in their shelters for about a year, though rising rent prices could also be playing a role, said Lacey Kerr, assistant director of client services.

On average, a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,377 — about $1,737 in U.S. currency, according to the real estate website Zumper.

In the Toronto shelter system, about 50% of individuals are staying for more than six months, possibly because of the rising cost of housing, said Gord Tanner, general manager at Toronto Shelter and Support Services.

Kerr and Potvin said Homes First doesn’t put a timeline on how long someone can stay, adding that a 60-day policy — like the one Chicago implemented — could lead to instability.

“We think that having a 60-day limit would actually just result in people staying in homelessness for longer because people would go between shelters, and then the case management process — where a worker actually supports a client to go through the legal process to claim status, to get work permits — they change,” Potvin said.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said these types of organizations are leading the work to help refugee claimants.

“It’s not just shelter,” Chow said. “It’s legal help, shelter, a sense of community, finding a job, finding permanent housing, immigration, how they can reunite with their family members, for example. So it’s a holistic approach, and that’s always the best approach.”

Shelters remain full

To seek a city shelter bed, many wait outside the intake center downtown. One afternoon, three people said they were seeking refugee status in Canada.

“I’m cold,” a woman standing outside said.

This spring, Toronto was still dealing with a shortage of shelter beds. They were unable to match about 263 people per day to a bed in mid-April, and about 27% of that population identified as refugee claimants, said Tanner, from Toronto Shelter and Support Services.

The city contracts with organizations like Homes First, the Canadian Red Cross and Costi to provide shelter services for the refugee population, he said.

“We are trying to separate the systems as best we can,” Tanner said about refugee claimants and the homeless population. “The support services are, we feel, very distinct for the two populations.”

Like Toronto, Chicago separated asylum-seekers from unhoused individuals, but it has come under criticism for paying millions of dollars to a Kansas-based company that has overseen many of its shelters, rather than contracting local organizations. Those living in the shelters have also spoken out about the conditions inside, WBEZ reported.

People sit outside Toronto’s intake center at 129 Peter St., where many refugee claimants and asylum seekers go to seek government housing services.

People sit outside Toronto’s intake center at 129 Peter St., where many refugee claimants and asylum seekers go to seek government housing services.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Churches open their doors

When Nadine Miller, executive director of Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles Church in suburban Etobicoke, heard about refugees sleeping on city streets last summer, she thought the church could house a few of them for two or three weeks.

Their efforts lasted seven months, and they housed about 1,000 people, Miller said. The refugee claimants included many fleeing African nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

The work took a toll.

Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles lost its physical space after city officials told the church it would cost about $36,600 U.S. dollars — to rezone the property into a shelter, Miller said. The church already faced a mounting debt of $1.2 million after taking out loans based on estimates of how much it would be reimbursed by the government, Miller said.

The church rents another site to hold its services. Still, Miller, who moved from Jamaica to Canada as a child, believes the mission to help refugees was necessary.

“Everything that I’ve learned up until now, they taught me that [not helping newcomers] is wrong,” Miller said about Canada helping immigrants. “And because they taught me that this is wrong, I know that this is not a good picture for us on the world stage. We need to do better, we can do better.”

Miracle Arena For All Nations is another church that created a shelter. The Christian church often hosts dignitaries with ties to countries including Liberia and Ghana.

In mid-April, two extended, heated white trailers housed about 40 refugee claimants who slept on bunk beds. In another small building used for recreation, a woman braided another woman’s hair while children from the church and shelter played outside.

The church has been under pressure to close the shelter, said Kofi Danso, the church’s senior pastor.

Local officials have cited Miracle Arena for building violations, putting the church at risk, Danso said. But he and other church officials are adamant that they won’t stop housing refugees, and the shelter remained open in June.

“The question is: Where are they going?” Danso asked.

Refugees and their families live in makeshift shelters at the Christian worship center Miracle Arena For All Nations in Vaughan, just outside of Toronto.

Refugees and their families live in makeshift shelters at the Christian worship center Miracle Arena For All Nations in Vaughan, just outside of Toronto.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Calls for action

Tanner, from Toronto Shelter and Support Services, said they, like many refugee advocates, are pushing for the creation of a regional reception center that will serve as a first point of contact for refugee claimants.

“That really is what we’re looking at and hoping that our federal government will support operating, so that we have some sort of coordinated response to the arrival of people and their distribution and connection to communities,” he said.

While Canada has a reputation for supporting immigrants, Gauri Sreenivasan, co-executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees, said refugee claimants fall through the cracks.

“The system that is the most broken and dysfunctional in Canada is the lack of a system with respect to refugee claimants,” Sreenivasan said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees is advocating for reception centers near major cities, along with transitional and short-term housing, rather than housing in hotels without social service organizations in places like Niagara Falls and Windsor, Sreenivasan said.

“People have literally been hanging around in hotels (for) three months, six months, nine months, 12 months. Appointments missed because the government moved them from hotel to hotel, so we have these kinds of nightmare scenarios.”

Immigration Series: Canada
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As Chicago dealt with a shortage of shelter beds, Toronto was also managing a shelter crisis amid an increase in people seeking refuge in Canada.
Three refugees from Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda share their stories about fleeing their countries for safety in Canada.

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.

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