Charity turns to Torontonians to house refugees as shelters fill up

Romero House can house up to 10 families, but says the demand is far greater than that. It also relies on about 25 hosts for temporary housing, but now all those spots are full, too.

Romero House says it needs more families to open their doors to newcomers this winter

Temitayo Adebayo, left, Marshall Burns, centre, and Adedeji 'Isaac' Adebayo have stayed close ever since the Adebayos arrived in Canada in 2018. (Submitted by Sherry Johnson)

Their journey from Nigeria to the safety of Canada was a long one — first a trip to the U.S. then a flight to Montreal, more travel to Toronto and nights spent in shelters as well as a church missionary basement. 

It wasn't until Adedeji "Isaac" Adebayo and his wife Temitayo were connected with Romero House and invited to stay with a host family — Sherry Johnson, her husband Joe Burns and son Marshall Burns —  that they were able to make a "soft landing" and feel at home, Isaac said.

They spent three months there before finding their own place.

"It was really, really awesome," said Isaac. "They took us in like we were family, like they knew us before. And everything has been wonderful since then."

Johnson, Burns and their son have been hosting refugees like the Adebayos for four years, giving them a comfortable place to live until they find affordable housing. Some stay for a few days, others for a few months.

Marshall, centre, and Joe Burns, right, always do 'Canadian' activities with the families they host, including Isaac, left, and Temitayo, such as celebrating Canada Day in the summer or watching hockey in the winter. (Submitted by Sherry Johnson)

"The idea of giving a little help to people who've had their lives uprooted we feel is important," said Burns. "They've had so much taken away and we've been fortunate to have been given so much. So if you can give back, then why not?" 

Marshall, 10, added, "I've learned we have been very lucky to be born in Canada." 

More hosts needed

Right now Romero House is searching for more hosts, said settlement worker Laura Friesen. The charitable organization offers transitional housing and settlement support for people who come to Canada seeking asylum without government assistance or private sponsors.

It has four of its own houses, where as many as 10 families live. But the demand is far greater than that, Friesen said. The organization also relies on about 25 hosts but now all those spots are full, too.

"If anyone in Toronto has a room available even for one night... people are being stranded and have nowhere to go, especially in this harsh winter weather," Friesen said. "We're in a situation where it's seriously, the more people we have to call the better."

Romero House settlement workers Laura Friesen, left, and Sayan Das outside their office. The organization is searching for more hosts as shelters fill up. (Submitted by Laura Friesen)

At this point in the pandemic, borders are less restricted and more refugees are entering than at the start, Friesen said. With COVID-19 cases climbing, the need for physical distancing means many refugee shelters are full and the city's are nearing capacity too, she said. 

As of this week, Toronto's family shelters have only two of 655 rooms available and individuals have filled 96 per cent of beds at single-person shelters, according to city data. Organizations offering respite and drop-in services are at 99 per cent occupancy. 

The city told CBC News that since September, there's been a "marked increase" in refugees arriving in Toronto in need of emergency housing — and that without more help from the federal and provincial governments, it is struggling to support them. 

"The city is currently unable to respond to refugee claimant arrivals the way it has previously," Shelter, Support and Housing Administration staff said in an emailed statement.

Staff are already overextended addressing the pandemic and helping people experiencing homelessness, while the city has converted many of its refugee shelters to emergency COVID-19 programs, the statement added.

Then there's the housing crisis, Friesen said.

"It would be one thing if we could get people set up in apartments and permanent housing quicker but that's unable to happen because Toronto is so expensive and unaffordable," she said. "So it's creating this really difficult situation." 

'The benefits are so wonderful'

As part of Romero House's screening process, hosts make it clear how long they're comfortable having people stay and how much they'd like to be involved in getting them set up in Canada, Friesen said. If hosts are not comfortable opening their doors during the pandemic, they can also opt to cover the costs of hotel rooms, giving Romero House more time to find accommodations.

Hosts can set rules too. Johnson and Burns, for example, require all guests to be fully vaccinated.

Temitayo Adebayo, left, is seen here with Sherry Johnson, right, at Johnson's Toronto home. The families remain close friends. (Submitted by Sherry Johnson)

The two are currently hosting a family of four from Colombia and will have a "Colombiadian Christmas," Johnson said, referring to the combination of their Colombian and Canadian traditions.

"We learn so much about culture and politics and friendship," she said. "We gained so much out of this experience and that's something people should know. The benefits are so wonderful." 

Johnson and her family remain close with the Adebayos, who now have two sons of their own. Isaac volunteers coaching kids soccer, works in construction and is thinking of going back to school.

Just this week, the Adebayos became permanent residents.

They continue to carry Sherry, Joe and Marshall's kindness with them, Isaac said. 

"It makes us feel like we should learn to accommodate other people, to give a helping hand," he said. "I think if everyone can practice what Sherry and Joe are doing, this world would be a very different place."