No ‘quick fix’ to housing asylum seekers, says ORAT head

  • July 19, 2023

There is no “quick fix” for a deluge of refugees overflowing Toronto’s shelter system, said Deacon Rudy Ovcjak.

The director of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees (ORAT) said the refugee shelter crisis dominating the news in Canada’s largest city is “deeply concerning,” and he expects it will take some time for the issue to be rectified, despite the announcement of $212 million in emergency funds from the federal government for the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), $97 million of which is earmarked for asylum seekers in Toronto.

Ovcjak said there is an “acute shortage of emergency shelter space, and unfortunately there does not look like there is a quick fix. It will take some time for the municipalities to effectively use that money to free up shelter space. It will not be an overnight solution.”

Ovcjak said a spike in inland refugee claimants has led to this bottleneck. He said whenever there is a change in policy that opens the door for more overseas or inland arrivals, there can be some unintended consequences.

“It is good on one level for the federal government to be as generous as they are with refugees and overseas claimants, but at the same time you have to make sure you have the necessary systems in place to be able to accommodate,” said Ovcjak.

ORAT is not slated to receive any of the funding announced by the government. The unfolding “temporary acute crisis” does not fall within the office’s mandate.

“What we have and continue to be attentive to (is ensuring) the refugees that we are welcoming to Canada and are responsible for are sufficiently supported financially and non-financially,” said Ovcjak. “We do not want them to add to the existing crisis that is out there.”

The rise in refugees and where to shelter them has come to a head in recent weeks in Toronto, with up to 200 asylum seekers sleeping in a tent encampment outside a shelter intake on Peter Street in downtown Toronto. Many were relocated to Revivaltime Tabernacle on Dufferin Street and Dominion Church International on Sheppard Avenue on July 18, but some remain on the streets.

Pastor Judith James of Revivaltime Tabernacle told the CBC that “we are going to try to do it for as long as we can, but this is a very temporary solution for a very big problem. We need great help.”

The city supplies 500 beds for refugees at an expense of $34 million, but, according to data from the City of Toronto, 2,900 refugee claimants are listed in the shelter system, a staggering 440-per-cent increase from the 537 recorded in September 2021.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow welcomed the monetary infusion, but she said it is not enough. She called for $157 million to shelter the asylum seekers.

“While we appreciate today's announcement, it will not meet the needs of refugees arriving in Toronto and across the region,” Chow said in a statement. “It may, however, provide a short-term stop gap.”

“Canada will continue to support the world’s most vulnerable people who seek our protection,” said Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser. “Today, we have committed additional funds to ensure cities like Toronto have the capacity to keep a roof over the head of asylum seekers fleeing violence, war and persecution.”

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