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Toronto mayor trades words with federal minister over shelter space for refugees

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Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow found herself in an online spat with Immigration Minister Marc Miller Wednesday as all levels of government continued to face criticism over the response to housing refugees and asylum seekers.

In a letter to the federal government earlier this week, Chow asked that the Ministry of Defence open up the federal armouries at Fort York and Moss Park for use as emergency shelters.

She described the situation in Toronto as "dire" with 3,900 refugees currently in the shelter system and another 1,212 being supported outside of the shelter system. She said the number represents a 50 per cent increase compared to six months ago and that there is no more room to accommodate people.

Hundreds of people are turned away from the system each night when no beds become available.

In a tweet Wednesday night,  Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller responded to a tweet from Chow which included her letter to the federal government. He said that he agrees that no one should be left outside in dangerously cold weather, and added that the federal government has already made an offer of $5 million to help the city keep people out of the cold.

"We have offered $5M to partner with the City of Toronto to open the Better Living Centre at the Exhibition Place to create more safe spaces to keep people out of the cold," Miller wrote. "This option remains."

Chow responded to Miller's post with a tweet of her own.

"The City is already working to open the Better Living Centre. 200+ spaces is not a solution," she wrote. "We need more space and resources for this crisis, including the armouries, a reception centre and real funding to support the 5,100 - and growing - refugees the City is supporting."

Speaking with CP24 Thursday, Chow elaborated and said warming spaces at the Better Living Centre are not the same thing as shelter space.

"It's not a bed; it's a warming centre, a respite centre," Chow said. "People need shelter beds. You know, we need a permanent solution for 5,000 refugees, not 200 spots for people to warm up."

She said the city "never turns down any cash from the federal government" and that there may have been a "miscommunication" over the offer for $5 million. She clarified that the city has not rejected any money.

She said that the federal government has not yet offered the armouries as an option for shelter space.

In a scrum with reporters Thursday, Defence Minister Bill Blair said he had a conversation on Monday morning with Chow on the topic and told her it was not an appropriate space for shelter as it is used for Armed Forces work.

"I explained to the Mayor I thought quite clearly that over 3,000 Canadian Armed Forces members work at those armouries and that the work they do is important," Blair said. "They’re the same people that were available to be deployed into our long-term care facilities. They helped us with forest fires and floods. Their training is really important and the armoury is not just simply an empty space."

He pointed out that the city has closed five temporary shelter facilities this year and said he told Chow that there are other places in the city that would be much more appropriate for housing refugees and asylum seekers.

Miller's office told CP24 in an email that "all options are on the table" for dealing with the issue.

Using the armouries "was an option that was openly discussed," a spokesperson for Miller confirmed.

"We also recognize armouries are not optimal options for long-term lodging, which is why we also offered $5M to partner with the city to open the Better Living Centre at exhibition place," the email read. "The reality is that we need to do something as soon as possible. We have discussed this with City, the offer stands, and we hope we are able to work together to keep roofs over people’s heads this winter."

The city and the federal government have been locked in a back-and-forth over the overflowing shelter system for months.

Last week, a homeless advocacy group released a report calling Toronto‘s winter plan for the homeless "atrociously inadequate" and said asylum seekers should not be stigmatized by the city.

Toronto and other municipalities say they have seen a huge spike in the number of refugees and asylum-seekers using municipal shelter systems. They have pointed out that refugees and asylum-seekers are an area of federal responsibility and have said they need help from the federal government to house people as local shelter systems cannot cope with the demand.

The issue spilled out onto Toronto streets after the city changed its policy in May, and started referring asylum-seekers and refugees to federal programs, rather than admitting them to the normal waitlist for shelter space. The decision is now the subject of an investigation by the city’s ombudsman.

Chow said she'd like to see the federal government provide funding to buy an old building that could be converted to shelter space.

"We could purchase one of the older buildings, there are older hotels. You can immediately convert it, and then everyone will be happy," Chow said. "Remember, these refugees just within a couple of months once they find the feet, they're working, they're paying."

Chow said at a news conference later in the day that she's encouraged to hear that the federal government may soon be moving to open a welcome centre for refugees and asylum seekers near the airport. However she said they would still need a place to go afterward.

"That would be a great news. That is part of what we've been talking about, a reception centre so people don't scatter the refugees at the homeless shelters all over the GTA," Chow said. "Having said that, having a reception centre is great, but then you have to receive them and then refer them to a place where they could stay that night. It's that place that is going to be a problem."

-          With files from CP24's Courtney Heels

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