City prepares for social assistance transition once Syrian refugee dollars run out

The City of Ottawa is facing a potentially overwhelming demand in 2017 for social assistance and affordable housing among government-sponsored Syrian refugees.

Monthly federal allowances to expire in 2017

The Syrian refugees who've arrived in Ottawa "didn't come here for social assistance," says Hindia Mohamoud, head of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership.

The City of Ottawa is trying to figure out how to handle a potentially overwhelming demand in 2017 for affordable housing and other community supports among government-sponsored Syrian refugees as some transition to social assistance.

Government-sponsored refugees will lose their monthly federal allowances after being in Canada for one year, and it's been estimated that by 2017 as many as 40 per cent could end up on Ontario's social assistance program.

"Typically there would be a normal flow of so many [immigrants] per month that would come in," said Aaron Burry, the city's general manager of community and social services.

"Now we have a large number of people coming in one particular block, and that put some demands on services if we don't plan that properly."

Affordable housing one major concern

The questions around Syrian refugees and what the city's role would be as some transition to social assistance came up Thursday at a city committee meeting.

"I'm very concerned that I don't know, as an elected member, what's going to happen in the first month after their federal or private dollars run out," said River Coun. Riley Brockington.

When the city passed its 2016 budget, Brockington expressed concern that no new money was being put aside to help manage the influx of refugees — a concern he still maintains.

"I do fear that city of Ottawa taxpayers will be on the hook for something they shouldn't be," Brockington said.

Another potential concern is housing: while the city says all 1,500 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Ottawa since December 2015 have found temporary places to live, that situation could change when their federal allowances run out.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury, chair of Ottawa Community Housing, is particularly concerned how the already long waiting lists will be affected when monthly federal assistance for Syrian refugees ends in 2017. (CBC)

"On the private-sponsorship groups, we're very comfortable. I think there's solid connection within the community," said Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, the chair of Ottawa Community Housing.

"On the public side — so on the federal government side — obviously, for one year we're comfortable. But after that, we have major concerns."

The city's lengthy wait list for affordable housing has prompted concerns about how to handle the "new pressures" that Syrian refugees represent, Fleury said.

"I would prefer if the province and the feds and the cities worked together specifically with those families. Because we know where they are," said Fleury.

"One year later, what will happen? I think that there's solutions without, if you will, forcing them on the [social housing] registry. Because then that's just another waiting list pool. It doesn't resolve the current housing crunch."

Refugees have 'high drive' to succeed

The city is analyzing the likelihood that government-sponsored refugees who end up on social assistance will be able to one day get off of it, Burry said at Thursday's committee meeting.

There will also be a $450,000 "federal welcome fund" that will be dispersed over the next year, said Burry. 

"We've been advocating that a lot of those federal programs continue two years — not one year," Burry said. 

It's doubtful any Syrian refugees who end up on social assistance will be content to stay in that situation, said Hindia Mohamoud, the head of Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership.

"There's a high drive by the immigrants to succeed. They didn't come here for social assistance," Mohamoud said.

"They escaped war. So if they go there, if there is a need for social welfare to step in, I trust it will not be [for] a long time."