Asylum seekers, mostly from African countries, were living for weeks this summer on the streets downtown, outside the shelter intake at 129 Peter St (corner Richmond St). Photo by David Gray-Donald.

Crisis Averted?

When Olivia Chow took office as mayor on July 12, newly arrived asylum seekers were being forced to sleep on city streets as city council had stopped shelters from allowing them in as of May 31, as part of a funding conflict between the city and – primarily – the federal government. 

After weeks spent living on concrete, and through numerous thunderstorms, the group living outside of the 129 Peter St intake office and shelter received national attention. Administrators struggled to maintain composure under media scrutiny, and Mayor Chow publicly called for assistance from provincial and federal bodies. 

On July 18, the federal government announced it would move $97 million to Toronto, which it had previously committed to giving but hadn’t actually transferred, to fund the shelter services for newcomers.

This had followed several weeks of government officials playing chicken with each other, seeing who would flinch first and pay out. 

Almost immediately, after these funds were locked in, over 100 new shelter spaces were opened by order of the mayor, and city officials declared victory. 

About a month later, Mayor Chow announced $13 in total funding from the province and city towards the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit, with the stated intention of helping people find homes. During the announcement, Chow called on the federal government to contribute an additional $26 million to the province, as the city had already exhausted the federal contribution by May.  

Housing advocates note that the program is difficult to access, as it operates on a case-by-case basis when securing subsidized housing for those who are unhoused or seeking asylum. 

Community-based organizations have been managing the needs of the unhoused, including asylum-seekers and refugees, for years in Toronto, and have conducted themselves with the hope that assistance may become available, but never on the assumption that it will. 

Francesca Allodi-Ross is the executive director of Romero House, a refugee assistance facility that helps administer transitional housing for refugee claimants in the city, and she has witnessed firsthand how fast the well of funding can dry up. 

“That $13 million is going to go very quickly given the current demand, and it’s frustrating trying to deal with the urgency of the current situation surrounding these claimants, especially as it is going to start getting colder. These are problems that have been decades in the making,” says Allodi-Ross, “and they require long-term solutions,” 

According to Allodi-Ross, the current state of the housing crisis has deadlocked potential refugee renters, as without any credit history or job experience, they are faced with little to no options in a harsh rental market. 

As a result, representatives from Romero House made correspondence with Mayor Chow a top priority – before and immediately after she was sworn in as mayor.

“We’ve appreciated the city’s collaborative approach to putting referrals to different organizations on their website to help people who are looking to donate,” they said, adding that city council has also passed a motion endorsing a refugee reception centre, which would operate as a temporary intake centre while the city works on securing permanent housing for those it accommodates.  

“So, we’re hoping to continue conversations with the city about that and secure funding from the federal and provincial governments.” 

However, even with a direct line to city hall, Allodi-Ross remains concerned about how this refugee centre would be implemented — if at all — as the city’s track record with large-scale housing facilities, such as COVID hotels, remains spotty at best. 

“Our primary focus in terms of the larger picture, is a continued dialogue with the city for the refugee reception centre, in order to make sure that there is appropriate consultation with other organizations and other impacted groups,” says Allodi-Ross. 

Lorraine Lam, a community outreach worker, has been following the bouncing ball of municipal attitudes toward housing incentives, and justifiably, is concerned about another “set it and forget it”approach to temporary housing.   

“They’re coming up with a quick fix solution to open up another big space, but haven’t addressed what happens after. It’s a part of the big question that I haven’t heard more of. If the idea is to have centralized resources in one place, that’s great, but where are these people going to go after?” says Lam. 

So how can Torontonians make sure city officials address these pressing community needs, regardless of what’s accessible in government coffers today?

For Lam, it’s ensuring that the city does not revert to its old habits of focusing on the visibility of the issue, rather than on long-term remedies. “The city has prioritized visibility as opposed to upstream solutions, and I think we’ve seen that play out in many different ways,” Lam says in reference to encampment clearings and rapid shelter programs. 

Additionally, if bringing attention to bad habits isn’t enough, Lam also believes that the best way the community can keep the city focused on the task at hand is by striking their wallets, as opposed to their sense of duty. 

“The fact of the matter is the economy, as it is more expensive to have people in shelters…The argument that I would put towards all levels of government, is that even if the official position is to not advocate for the unhoused, it’s still more economically viable to build affordable housing,” says Lam. 

Even with the steady relationship between organizations like the Romero House and the municipal government, the lingering fear that money can run dry remains a perpetual concern for Allodi-Ross and community institutions in Toronto. 

“It’s really draining work, to be on the frontline every day, talking to people who have nowhere to sleep. They’re sleeping under bridges and in parks and it’s difficult to keep up morale in the face of that kind of hopelessness.” 

To see big changes, community workers and all Torontonians will have to make sure that the fire remains stoked underneath the feet of government powers, and ensure it never comes close to mere coals.

This article appeared in the 2023 Sept/Oct issue.