Toronto's mayor says it can't handle more refugee claimants but some say finding housing feels impossible

The federal government says it's up to Ontario to help Toronto find housing for the influx of refugee claimants coming to the city this summer. Ottawa issued a statement Tuesday after Toronto Mayor John Tory warned the city isn't equipped to cope with the spike in the number of migrants and asked for more help.

Federal government says Ontario responsible for finding temporary housing for migrants, has pledged $11M

Mayor John Tory says the city is not equipped to handle any more waves of refugee claimants because of 'unprecedented pressure' on its shelter system and will not be able to so without immediate provincial and federal financial help. (John Rieti/CBC)

The federal government says it's up to Ontario to help Toronto find housing for the influx of refugee claimants coming to the city this summer. 

Ottawa issued a statement Tuesday after Toronto Mayor John Tory warned the city isn't equipped to cope with the spike in the number of migrants and asked for more help. The federal government says it's the province's responsibility to secure the necessary housing sites to create a triage system similar to Quebec's.

The response from Matthew Genest, press secretary for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, also says the government expects that the lion's share of the $11 million it's providing to support temporary housing will be allocated to Toronto.

It comes the same day that Tory spoke of the "unprecedented pressure" on Toronto's shelter system and said the city will need immediate provincial and federal financial help.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Tory said the city has gone to "heroic efforts" to house refugee claimants but it can no longer handle the influx on its own.

Power & Politics: John Tory on refugees straining Toronto shelters

4 years ago
Duration 5:05
'Please step up and help us with this...the responsibilities of the federal government do not stop at the border,' says Toronto mayor John Tory.

Toronto in a holding pattern?

"Right now, we're saying, we have a problem and we need help," Tory told reporters on Tuesday. "We have exhausted our available sites, our resources and our personnel. We need the other levels of government to step up and assist Toronto in a true partnership."

It's not the first time the mayor has appealed for more help for Toronto, where some 40 per cent of the shelter population is now made up of refugee claimants. But many advocates have also returned the fire, saying the pressure on the city's shelter system is part of a larger problem of underfunding and that to pin the blame on refugees is to scapegoat them. 

The federal government's statement says it looks forward to working with Ontario's new government to finalize a triage plan for the province that could see incoming claimants directed to lesser populated parts of the province.

How incoming premier Doug Ford plans to address that strain remains to be seen, but at least one MP says the election places Ontario in a "unique position." Until the the new premier takes the helm, the city may be left in limbo as to how best to spend the $11 million promised by the federal government. 

"Nothing can happen during the writ period. Nothing can happen until there's a new government sworn in," Adam Vaughan, who represents the riding of Spadina-Fort York, said Tuesday. 

Tory says officials have discussed the idea of setting up a transition centre in the eastern part of Ontario to manage the flow of refugee claimants. He said a centre would ease the pressure on Toronto and provide a "regional response" to the problem and could direct claimants to other municipalities.

Council to consider city manager's report on issue

City council is considering a report from the interim city manager that states the city has "no further ability" to accept new waves of refugee claimants into its shelter system. 
A family claiming to be from Colombia gets set to cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 near Champlain, NY. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"The City of Toronto's shelter system cannot manage the pressure any further," the interim city manager's report says. "The situation is now urgent." 

Currently, the city is housing some 800 migrants, including 200 children in dormitories at two Toronto colleges — a temporary solution that will end in August when students return to school.

Come August 9, the mayor says, the city will not have the capacity to accommodate those 800 people, saying the city would be required to close several community centres and cancel public programs without further help.

That, says Tory, is "a step the city is not prepared to take."

But some claimants are finding themselves stuck, saying that their problem isn't the shelter system, but finding accommodation outside of it.

Kazwem Oluwadamilare, for example, worries he's running out of time.

"I've been going out now looking for a house. With all the landlords and all the agencies, nobody is giving a house to people like us. I don't know why that is happening," he said.

"The only problem I have here in Toronto is accommodation ... There are no vacancies. Everywhere you go is full." 

Mayor sent urgent letter to Toronto MPs

Tory's remarks come after the mayor sent an urgent letter to Toronto MPs on Monday about the issue.

In the letter, Tory says the city needs "appropriate support" from the provincial and federal governments to be able to welcome newcomers to Toronto.

"I think we can all agree that having the city scramble to find emergency shelter for each new wave of arrivals is not sustainable, nor is it a desirable state of affairs. What's needed is proper housing and proper supports, something the city cannot provide on its own," Tory wrote. 

According to the letter, there are more than 3,000 refugee claimants and asylum seekers being housed in Toronto's shelters and hotels.

Tory notes in the letter that the report repeats a request by the city for the federal and provincial governments to take part in providing housing for refugee claimants.

No details yet on federal funding pledge

The mayor acknowledges in the letter that the federal Liberal government has pledged $11 million to Ontario to ease the crunch from an influx of asylum seekers, but says the city is still waiting for information.

"Please note in the report that no details about how or where this funding will be used have been made available," Tory wrote.

Tory adds that the city is willing to take MPs on visits to its shelters, hotels and dormitories housing refugee claimants if they are interested.

"Our city has a long history of welcoming newcomers and continues to express our support for your government's policies related to the welcoming of refugee and asylum seekers. But responsibility for these populations does not end at the border, and we simply can no longer contend with their housing needs alone," Tory wrote.

Report says $64.5M already earmarked

In the report, the interim city manager says council has earmarked more than $64.5 million in its last two operating budgets to meet the needs of refugee claimants.

"As the main destination for immigrants to Canada, Toronto receives on average 50,000 new arrivals annually," it says.

The report adds that recent public policy and government actions in the U.S., along with events elsewhere in the world, are contributing to a surge in what it call "irregular migration" to Canada.

"Toronto has a long history of supporting and welcoming refugee/asylum claimants including Vietnamese peoples in the 1970s, Somali peoples in the 1980s, and more recently, Syrian refugee/asylum claimants in 2016," the report says.