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E-BLAST: At the Breaking Point: What We Need to Support Refugees

Every year on Canada Day, I have the pleasure of joining several celebrations put on by community groups across the ward. Special this year was a City-hosted celebration at Mel Lastman Square, where Councillor Cheng and I shared greetings on behalf of City Council and the Deputy Mayor. While I was there, I ran into a Member of Parliament and we got talking about one of the biggest challenges facing Toronto right now: the growing refugee crisis.

I want to be crystal clear, I fully support and commend the Federal government's efforts to bring more refugees into Canada. We have a moral imperative to help people escape humanitarian crises. Not only that, but there's also a strong economic case for welcoming more refugees to our country. Refugees, like all newcomers, come to Canada to create a better life for themselves and their families. They are active in their neighbourhoods, start businesses, and become part of our thriving communities. They are also integral to helping fill the labour shortage that challenges Toronto's competitiveness on the global stage.

Our City can provide refuge for those who need it most and reap the benefits of doing so, but we will never help refugees succeed and support our city if we can't provide adequate care and services for them when they arrive. This is where the Federal government is failing both refugees and Torontonians.

Currently, as many as 600 new refugee claimants come to Toronto's central intake each month, and we are only able to house about 300 of them by the end of that month. That leaves over 300 new refugees entering the City's shelter system with no housing plan. As this cycle repeats each month, we're seeing an unsustainable level of refugees in our shelter system.

Graphs showing occupancy trends for refugees and refugee claimaints in our shelter system. Click the image to view a larger version.

Toronto's shelter system is already facing significant pressure. During the pandemic, we dramatically expanded the system from 6000 beds to over 9000 beds today. We've even developed a refugee shelter plan to better serve families fleeing violence, but we're hitting a breaking point. Each night, over 300 individuals seeking a shelter bed are turned away because there is no space to spare.

We no longer have the space, materials, people, or funds to expand this response on our own. When I mentioned this to the MP on Canada Day, they responded, "What do you mean? We give you money to deal with refugees." This is true (technically). The Federal government gives us money to support refugees at pre-pandemic levels—enough to support about 500 in our shelter system. We currently have over 3000 refugees occupying shelter beds, and the City is using every penny of our Federal funding plus pulling from our own rainy day financial reserves to make that work. The Federal government upped the number of refugees who are able to enter our city without upping their financial support, and that number far exceeds what has ever been accommodated here in Toronto. This is simply not sustainable and is putting unbearable strain on our system.

A photo of refugees walking with their belongings as they flee Ukraine for Hungary.

The strain is becoming more visible each day. After enormous effort and care over the past 18 months to reduce encampments in parks, we're seeing them grow again in Allan Gardens, Lamport Stadium, and churches across the city. While we're using a community-driven approach to address encampments, called the Dufferin Grove Model, it takes considerable time, effort, and trust, and it can only work if there are both safe shelter spaces available and a path to permanent housing. Both of these are becoming less possible as we struggle to keep the entire system from collapsing.

Last month, Deputy Mayor McKelvie and I held a press conference and stressed this point to the public. We also made the unprecedented announcement that as of June 1, 2023, new refugee claimants would be diverted from our central intake to Federal IRCC Centres and refugee hotels. One challenge: the Federal government wouldn't even tell us where the IRCC spaces were. City staff had to investigate and find the locations themselves.

[embed twt vid here] A clip from the press conference I did with Deputy Mayor McKelvie.

Gord Tanner, the General Manager of our Shelter, Support and Housing division, recently spoke out about why our city is being forced to turn refugees away. Mayor-elect Olivia Chow also recently spoke at length about the lack of support our city is receiving from the Federal government to support refugees. This issue will be top of mind for all of Council in the months ahead.

So, you may ask (as the MP did), where do we go from here?

We need the Federal government to step up. We need them to listen, understand the severity of this crisis, and act. They need to either provide the necessary services themselves or urgently provide the $157 million we need to cover the costs of supporting refugees in our shelter system. They also need to come to the table with a long-term strategy to support incoming refugees with the most dignified humanitarian response we can provide. We need this strategy in place now to be fully prepared for the winter months, when our shelter system faces even greater strain.

Toronto prides itself on being a welcoming city. We want to welcome refugees and asylum seekers with open arms and a wide array of supports to make sure they have the opportunity to build a better life here. We don't want to turn them away, but we are at a point where we truly have no other choice. If you want to help us secure proper support for refugees here in Toronto, please read and sign the petition below:


Summer Celebration!

Summer Celebration is happening this weekend!

Come out to Oriole Community Centre on Saturday, July 8 from 1 PM - 4 PM for a barbeque, ice cream, face painting, a bouncy castle, and more fun activities for the whole family to enjoy.

We're also partnering with Ontario Basketball to put on an epic competition with special guests Kyle Johnson of the Brampton Honey Badgers, Ashton Smith of Raptors905, and Ontario Basketball's own Claude Nembhard. Come out to show your stuff and win prizes.

I can't wait to see you there!


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