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Refugees sleeping on streets a 'crisis,' new Toronto mayor Olivia Chow says

Toronto’s new mayor called the number of refugee claimants sleeping outside a shelter in downtown Toronto a “crisis” while calling for new federal money to pay for asylum seekers in the city’s shelter system — money that the federal government gave no sign they would hand over.

Olivia Chow called for all levels of government to come up with a plan to deal with the backlog in almost every stage of a process designed to house people fleeing their home countries — as well as tackle the underlying housing crisis that affects many Canadians.

“It’s a crisis. It’s an emergency,” Chow said in response to questions during her first press conference as mayor.

“We know our shelters are full and a third of residents in shelters right now are refugees. Refugees are a federal responsibility. We need at least $160 million from the federal government to help shelter them,” she said.

Reached at an unrelated press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada is a country that welcomes people fleeing persecution and highlighted money previously given to house refugees.

“Over the past few years, we saw a spike in irregular migrant crossings. The federal government was there with hundreds of millions of dollars in support for Quebec and Ontario, and also other parts of the country,” Trudeau said.

“We will work with municipalities and provinces to make sure Canada will continue to support people coming to Canada,” he said.

Outside a shelter on Peter Street in Toronto, dozens of people lined up waiting for the chance at a room. Suitcases and garbage bags were piled up nearby, as the belongings they had brought with them had no place to be stored either. One man slept on his suitcase under a coat.

Another man there, Deo Byarugaba, said he was fleeing Uganda after a law was passed in May allowing the death penalty for something called “aggravated homosexuality.”

A woman is seen surrounded by luggage and other personal belongings outside a shelter intake office in Toronto on July 11, 2023.“My life was in danger. When the anti-homosexual bill was passed, so much of my freedom has been taken away. Most people of my nature, their life is over. They are being hunted,” he said.

Byarugaba said he was a social worker in his home country and sympathized with the difficulties the shelter system is having in housing new people. He didn’t complain about sleeping on the streets for 12 days now, saying instead he had hope that Canada would protect him.

“I hope human rights are respected,” he said.

The stalemate began after Toronto started turning away asylum claimants from its shelter system, claiming the federal government owed them more funds. The federal government has said that it has already given some $215 million to refugee housing.

Compounding the issue is that Toronto’s portion of the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit has run out, meaning that refugees currently in the shelter system are having difficulty moving on and freeing up beds.

The provincial government has said that total money in COHB is increasing rapidly, though figures show that there is less money for new people joining the program, in part because housing costs have risen rapidly too.

Critics say the stalemate needs to be resolved.

 “It’s not a good look for Canada. It’s bad for our reputation. Canada can and must do better,” said the federal NDP’s immigration critic, Jenny Kwan.

She called for short-term investments in a housing benefit that could house people on the street now, and long-term investment in building affordable housing.

 Meanwhile, some Toronto residents didn’t wait for the government — one group showed up with bags of groceries and another with yoga mats that could make for a more comfortable place to sleep than a sidewalk.

 “Welcome to Canada,” one man said as he dropped off the mats. Top Stories

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