City calling for provincial, federal support for influx of refugee claimants in shelter system

With a rising number of refugee claimants flooding Toronto's shelter system in recent years, the city has issued an urgent request for support from the federal and provincial governments. But one advocate says Mayor John Tory is trying to 'scapegoat' refugees.

2,350 refugee claimants using shelter system in April, but advocate says mayor trying to 'scapegoat' them

Mayor John Tory says if refugee claimants continue to use the shelter system at current levels, the city will incur $64.5 million in costs tied to providing their shelter and housing in 2017 and 2018. (John Rieti/CBC)

With a rising number of refugee claimants flooding Toronto's shelter system in recent years, the city has issued an urgent request for support from the federal and provincial governments.

"We want refugees to be as big a success story for themselves and for Canada [as] prior generations of refugees," said Mayor John Tory on Thursday. "But that goal is simply not achievable if other governments — especially the federal government — don't step up."

The average number of refugee claimants in shelter system beds has gone up year over year since 2016, city data shows, from roughly 490 each night in April 2016 to more than 1,100 a year later.

This April, there are now roughly 2,350 refugee claimants using the shelter system, which accounts for more than one-third of all shelter system beds. That system includes both conventional shelter spaces and beds within four hotel and motel sites.

Tory said if those levels continue, the city will incur $64.5 million in costs tied to providing shelter and housing for refugee claimants in 2017 and 2018.

"As is the case with the general shelter population, it would seem that Toronto ends up taking on responsibility for the entire region without the funding support that recognizes that," he said.

The number of refugee claimants within Toronto's shelter system has been rising in recent years, city data shows. (CBC News)

Asylum seekers moving from Montreal to Toronto, city believes

The city is now asking the federal and provincial governments to help co-ordinate the immediate placement of new arrivals to locations outside of its shelter system and provide dedicated staff to co-ordinate services for refugee claimants.

Tory said it's crucial that higher levels of government step in, since this is an "area of their jurisdiction."

City officials believe the rising number of shelter-using refugee claimants is likely tied to the influx of refugees in Quebec, including many who may be travelling to Toronto.

As CBC previously reported, more than 5,500 migrants have crossed illegally into Quebec so far this year — a big jump from the 2,000 or so who entered the province by this time in 2017.

The latest numbers from Quebec's provincial government show more than 1,300 asylum seekers are being housed in the Montreal area right now, and the province's immigration minister recently announced it will stop accepting new arrivals to its shelter system.

Following Tory's plea for outside help for Toronto, both Ontario and the federal government pledged their ongoing support.

"We have been aware that existing Toronto housing was reaching capacity," said Beatrice Fenelon, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in a statement. "We continue to work closely with all involved players in the implementation of a contingency plan that is prepared for any future fluctuations."

In comments to the media on Thursday morning, Premier Kathleen Wynne said the province will continue to look for extra provincial buildings that can be used for shelter spaces.

A family gets set to cross the border into Canada at Quebec's Roxham Road earlier in April. More than 5,500 migrants have crossed illegally into the province so far this year. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

'He's chosen to scapegoat people'

But some advocates say the city's concerns over asylum seekers are just one piece of a bigger, ongoing issue: The shelter system as a whole is bursting at the seams, with an ongoing 96 per cent occupancy rate.

"Many of the shelter beds have been taken by asylum seekers and refugees, but that does not paint the full picture," said Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. "The system overall has been under some significant strain."

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a longtime advocate for Toronto's homeless community, is among others criticizing the latest city numbers.

On Twitter, he questioned why the city lumps motel beds into its shelter numbers, saying there's "almost no overlap" between the two.

"Simply put, Toronto bureaucrats started counting motel beds used by refugee claimants as part of their strategy to game the stats around homelessness rather than offering a real solution," he tweeted.

City staff say motel rooms have been used to expand capacity for families in the shelter system dating back to the 1980s. But outreach worker Gregory Cook said the challenges facing conventional shelter users and asylum seekers staying primarily in motels and hotels are distinct, and questioned the mayor's focus on refugee claimants.

"It really frustrates me that he's chosen to scapegoat people who are refugees," he said.


Lauren Pelley is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. Currently covering how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Canadians, in Toronto and beyond. Contact her at: