Syrian refugee families are moving from Toronto to Hamilton

Some Syrian refugees who originally settled in Toronto are headed to Hamilton in search of cheaper housing and a more affordable life. But its not clear that anyone is coordinating or managing the moves to a new city

They're relocating for the cheaper housing, but how they connect with service providers is less clear

A Syrian man and his child wait in a refugee camp in Greece in October. Some of the Syrian refugee families who originally intended to settle in Toronto are coming to Hamilton instead. (Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press)

As Hamilton scrambles to house and support 988 Syrian refugees, an additional 150 who originally arrived in Toronto have moved to the city in search of cheaper housing.

The Toronto arrivals are an unexpected wrinkle in the city's significant resettlement effort, already stressed because the 988 designated to arrive here is double the number originally anticipated.

There are many unanswered questions about how — or if — the secondary migration is being managed or coordinated.

The additional refugees settling in Hamilton appear to be arriving outside of the organized channels for refugee settlement in the city. They are not being co-ordinated with Wesley Urban Ministries, the Hamilton agency responsible for overseeing the government sponsored refugee settlement effort here. 

I know of at least five to 10 other families who have come there from COSTI in Toronto.- Chelsey Lichtman,  Toronto refeugee support volunteer.

As well, the migrants are not yet connected to the local public health efforts rushing to provide everything from immunization to dental care.

And with nearly 400 of the original 988 still in Hamilton hotels awaiting housing, the new Toronto arrivals will likely add more strain to the search for housing.

Wesley, which doesn't manage the cases, told CBC they are aware the families are there. It's been talking to COSTI Immigrant Services, the agency that manages government-assisted refugee cases in Toronto, to find out more about them, said executive director Daljit Garry.

Who is taking responsibility?

It's not clear if Wesley will take responsibility for the additional caseload, whether there will be additional funding for the agency if it does, or whether they remain the responsibility of COSTI. It's also not clear if COSTI is encouraging the moves. The agency has not responded to CBC requests for an interview.

The Toronto families come here in search of affordable housing, said Ines Rios, executive director of the Immigrant Working Centre (IWC). They're also drawn to Hamilton's affordable living conditions, and ease of navigation.

"I'm happy because I think Hamilton needs to grow," said Rios, whose agency has helped about a dozen of the families who have moved here from Toronto.

"But it creates a bit of a crisis if we are not prepared."

It's a stretch on all fronts.- Laurel Cooke, Hamilton Family Health Team, on there being a larger than anticipated number of families

No one has used the word "crisis" when it comes to plans to welcome Syrian refugee families. But agencies admit that their resources are stretched.

Public Health, for example, has pulled staff off less urgent projects to set up immunization clinics in hotel conference rooms.

Housing is an issue too. As of this month, only 400 of the 988 arriving refugees had secured housing, so hundreds are living in hotels for a month or more.

"The turn around for housing can happen in two weeks," Garry told CBC Hamilton this month. But because the number increased so quickly and drastically, there have been long delays.

Wesley, too, is scrambling to accommodate the surprise jump in families arriving. It's been training staff on the fly and hustling to find temporary and permanent housing.

"It's been an overwhelming task, history in the making," Garry said. "We've not seen this type of influx since the Kosovar settlement."

The Hamilton Family Health Team describes similar challenges. From common colds to dental needs, health care providers are serving twice the number of people expected, said Laurel Cooke, manager of the nursing and complex care teams.

'Testing our ability to work together'

"It's a stretch on all fronts," said Cooke. "It's a stretch on public health. I have nursing teams in hotels every day. We're not funded for that.

"On the plus side, it really is testing our ability to work together across the community."

It's less clear where the families arriving from Toronto — called "secondary migrants" — fit into the mix. Many come to the IWC, which Rios says has enough workers to manage the caseload — for now.

It's been challenging, but it's nothing that's insurmountable.- Mayor Fred Eisenberger

Chelsey Lichtman, a Toronto realtor, helped a family resettle from Toronto to Hamilton. Lichtman says the family of nine is happy to be here, but stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

They're not COSTI clients anymore, she said. But Wesley isn't taking their cases either.

Found a home in the North End

The family is living in a semi-detached three-bedroom rental home in the North End, Lichtman said. That sort of housing that would cost more than $2,000 in Toronto. They were happy to find it.

"Luckily, we were among the first to do this," she said. "I know of at least five to 10 other families who have come there from COSTI in Toronto."

The issue is a possible future subject for Mayor Fred Eisenberger's new refugee advisory committee. There's no central place where information flows right now, he said. That's the committee's goal.

Refugee resources have been stretched in general, Eisenberger said. But Hamilton will manage.

"It's been challenging, but it's nothing that's insurmountable."