A community steps up to help asylum seekers forced to sleep on the sidewalk


THEY JUST DID IT, since government couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Community members came together to find shelter for refugees sleeping on the sidewalk in their Toronto neighbourhood—collateral damage from a tug-of-war between all levels of government over who should foot the bill for housing refugees in Canada.

Around 30 or so refugees have been sleeping on the sidewalk outside of the city’s shelter intake centre at Richmond and Peter streets for weeks—ever since the city started referring refugees to federal programs in June, instead of admitting them to the municipal shelter system.

Stuck in limbo

However, many asylum seekers can’t get federal help if their claims haven’t been fully granted, leaving many dozens of them stuck in limbo with nowhere to sleep but the street.

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker and advocate for the refugees marooned on the sidewalk said a “coalition of groups” worked to arrange bus transport and temporary space for individuals at a local church.

Pastor Judith James stressed that her church, and a small number of non-profits currently paying to house the refugees and asylum seekers, cannot do so for long without more help.

“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,” James said.

“We are in need of great help. We need community leaders to step up, we need the [federal] government to step up, we need the province to step up. This is a national crisis.”

‘Immeasurable harm’

Meanwhile, 32 housing advocates and outreach workers sent an open letter to the head of Toronto’s shelter and housing system, Gord Tanner, calling for his resignation or for Toronto mayor Olivia Chow to fire him over what they call “repeated mismanagement of the shelter system.”

“Your key decisions have resulted in immeasurable harm and have further exacerbated the crisis,” the letter states.

One man, who has been stranded on the sidewalk for 10 days, said that while the refugees are grateful to get food, what they really need is shelter.

“We have food in our own countries. But we came here because of security. And now security means that we have to have a place that is enclosed, where we put our heads to rest.”

Governments pass the buck

The growing camp of refugee claimants and asylum seekers outside 129 Peter St. is the result of a callous game of pass the buck among all levels of government over who should foot the bill when it comes to housing refugees in Canada.

“A lot of political figures respond to public pressure and it’s not looking very good on them right now,” said Lam. “So I would say that maybe that little bit of pressure might jog some more quick rapid-response movement.”

On July 17, Mohamad Fakih, CEO of Paramount Fine Foods pledged to donate $20,000 and raise more money to pay for temporary housing.

Fakih said: “This is wrong on all of us and we have to change it.”

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