Tomorrow, hundreds of refugee claimants who sought safety in Toronto must leave the dorms they have been temporarily housed in to make way for returning students. In recent months, there has been much debate around Ontario’s ability to house refugees. And while the recent influx of asylum seekers may have sparked the current debate, Toronto’s housing crisis plays a crucial role in the situation and must be addressed. We need to find solutions to ensure that short-term measures aren’t used as Band-Aids for long-term problems.
Stable and affordable housing is one of the most important indicators of good health, but sadly in Toronto more and more people are unable to afford rent or find a place to live.
Asylum seeking happens in waves, so while it may seem that we are seeing higher numbers of refugee claimants than ever before, the current numbers of refugees to Canada are similar to what we saw in 2001. We were able to accommodate then – what’s different now?
Sheer numbers can’t be the only issue.
“It’s not only that the demand for shelter from claimants is higher,” explains Anne Woolger, Founding Director of Matthew House, a refugee shelter in Toronto. “The lack of affordable housing options prevents people from moving out as quickly as in the past thereby creating a backlog of people in shelters,” she said. “Back in 2001, the average amount of time a claimant spent in a refugee shelter was 2-3 weeks. Now, claimants stay closer to 6 months.”
Long waits for affordable housing puts pressure on the shelter and other systems. The problem is less a crisis of the amount of asylum seekers, and more a crisis of access to affordable housing. Toronto’s failure to deal with its housing difficulties means that we now have difficulties in helping people flee persecution.
Canada is often viewed as a safe haven for those in need, and Toronto’s resources and diversity are a magnet for newcomers. “A large proportion of refugee claimants eventually make their way to Toronto – often to be closer to settlement and legal services, as well as established migrant and diaspora communities,” explains Samia Tecle, whose practitioner work and PhD research at the University of Toronto focuses on refugees. “However, Toronto is a big and difficult city to navigate upon first arrival, and most of our existing shelter services are at capacity even if you can find them.”
Much can be done across the housing spectrum to alleviate the pressure – from improving access to supportive housing and rent benefits, to building more affordable and market rental housing.
The federal government has pledged $11M to Toronto for temporary housing – a start, though the reality is that Toronto would need closer to $64 million to meet the current need.
Our efforts to find shelter for refugee claimants in Toronto must continue, while also working to find solutions to address systemic issues like affordable housing. Our new neighbours have made a long and often precarious journey to get here, and still have a long road ahead as they navigate the refugee claim process.
If there’s one thing you need after long and arduous journey, it’s a place to call home.