Hamilton board offers vacant schools as housing for Syrian refugees

Refugees living in schools? Trustees will vote Monday to 'hand over the keys' to local agencies so refugees can stay in the vacant buildings.

Wesley Urban Ministries is also looking for residents willing to rent rooms to refugees

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board will vote Monday to offer vacant schools to house refugees. That includes Parkside Secondary School in Dundas.

Hamilton's public school board plans to offer up vacant schools as potential temporary homes for Syrian refugees expected in the city by the end of this year.

It's just the latest idea floated as local organizations brainstorm about where to house some of the 25,000 Syrian refugees due in Canada in the next six weeks. Some will come to Hamilton, although no one knows how many yet. 

We could just simply hand over the keys.- Todd White, chair, HWDSB

Where refugees will live is one of the most pressing questions as local groups rush to prepare.

Some will stay in hotels. Wesley Urban Ministries, the lead local organization, has put out a call for residents willing to rent rooms in their homes, or landlords with available apartments.

As for the school idea, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board chair Todd White has sent a preliminary email to Mayor Fred Eisenberger about it. On Monday, trustees will formally vote.

Closed schools as temporary housing

There are seven vacant schools, closed during a rash of closures in the last three years, that could work as temporary housing, said White. That includes Parkside Secondary in Dundas and Hill Park on the Mountain. The board also has five elementary schools — King George, Roxborough Park, Eastmount, Woodward and Linden Park — vacant or up for sale. Trustee Greg Van Geffen brought up the idea of offering schools, White said.

White isn't sure how suitable the schools would be. But the board wants to help.

"We could just simply hand over the keys," White said.

The schools could be renovated without impacting their resale value, he said. They have rooms with locking doors, and showers and kitchens.

If the board approves, White said, he'll extend a formal offer to the city and Wesley Urban Ministries.

Looking for residents to rent rooms

It can be an apartment. It can be more than one apartment.- Daljit Garry, Wesley Urban Ministries

Wesley is looking for people who have rooms in their homes or apartments they're willing to rent to refugees, said executive director Daljit Garry.

"It can be an apartment. It can be more than one apartment," she said. "We're currently trying to take stock of what's available and we want to consider all options."

Wesley is talking to various housing agencies, brainstorming solutions. "We're trying to think outside of the box."

Housing is a tough subject in Hamilton in general. The waiting list for social housing sits at more than 5,600 individuals and families. Meanwhile, housing prices are shooting upward, and condo developments far outweigh new affordable housing units. The rental vacancy rate is low.

The shortage makes it tough to find temporary housing for refugees, and will make it hard for them to find a long-term affordable place to live, Eisenberger said.

"Obviously, the desire is not to displace anyone who's looking for affordable housing."

'Doing it right and doing it well'

In the short term, some will stay at Wesley's reception house, which can accommodate 35 people. Some will say in hotels, although no one knows how much money the feds will provide for that yet.

In fact, no one is sure yet how many refugees will even arrive in Hamilton. Theodora Jean, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the city will know "in the coming days."

"The government is committed to doing this fast, but also doing it right and doing it well," she said in an email.

The refugees will also need health care, Garry said. They'll need help setting up bank accounts and social insurance numbers. They'll need education and food and clothes and furniture, and in some cases, help learning English.

"We're planning without details," Garry said. "And it's real-time planning."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC


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