When Cyprin Ontita came to Canada from Kenya a little over a month ago, he said he was “in the dark” about what life would be like as an asylum seeker.
“What you expect when you come from Africa is that you will get a good house. You’ll get work. At first, you just don’t know,” he said.
But when he arrived, first to Quebec City then Toronto, the 37-year-old former youth worker said he found himself sleeping outdoors, unable to access shelter.
Ontita’s friend and fellow Kenyan Daniel Wanyeki, 33, said he also spent two days sleeping outside when he arrived in Toronto in June because the shelters there were full.
They both came to Hamilton hoping the situation would be better.
“Someone suggested that in Hamilton there might be some space, and that’s why we moved to Hamilton. Hamilton is quite a good town,” he said.
The pair are staying at the Good Shepherd — one of several shelters in the city seeing an increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers needing a place to stay.
One fifth of shelters beds in Hamilton are currently filled by refugees and asylum seekers, prompting Mayor Andrea Horwath to say the system is at “risk of collapse” and ask for $9 million from the federal government to help address it.
Bringing agencies and services together
Hamilton is experiencing a “surge of refugee claimants or asylum seekers,” Terri Bedminster, director of operations for Refuge: Hamilton Centre for Newcomers Health, told CBC Hamilton Thursday.
A representative with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said at its Hamilton office, “the phone has been ringing more frequently in the last few weeks.”
Bedminster said many asylum seekers first arrive in Toronto — where the shelter systems are overwhelmed and an average of 273 people were turned away every night in June — and then come to Hamilton.
The newcomers think there “may be additional supports here and there are shelters, except that isn’t the case — our shelter system is already at its capacity,” she said.
Bedminster, along with over a dozen local organizations, came together at the downtown office of local organization Empowerment Squared to offer information on support services for newcomers in Hamilton on Thursday.
“This was a way of bringing all agencies and services together so that we can better coordinate supporting individuals, particularly from Kenya, Uganda,” she said, adding that organizations expected to meet with Mexican newcomers later on in the day.
Agencies like the YWCA, the Centre de santé communautaire Hamilton Niagara, the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, among others, set up booths to provide newcomers with information. Community members also donated hot meals, toiletries and groceries.
“We thought of a community response to support community,” Bedminster said.
Current data from the city shows the men’s shelter system has been over capacity since October 2022. Women’s, domestic violence and family shelters have also struggled with a lack of free beds.
On Thursday, Hamilton Centre MP Matthew Green supported Horwath’s funding ask and called on Marc Miller, the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, to help provide asylum seekers and refugee claimants with housing and shelter space.
“When we welcome people to our nation, we need to ensure that their basic needs are met. Hamilton is doing it’s part—now the federal government must to theirs,” he wrote in the letter.
Bahoz Dara Aziz, press secretary for the federal Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in an email earlier this week that housing and supports for asylum seekers are “the responsibility of provinces and municipalities.”
The federal government already announced $212 million on July 18 to help house asylum seekers, the email said.
Asylum seekers fleeing violence, discrimination
Bedminster said the rise in asylum seekers and refugee claimants can’t be pinned on a single cause, but she said discriminatory legislation, violence and climate change are some of the causes.
Ontita said he believes most of the people fleeing from Kenya are fleeing for their lives. “Most of us here, if it’s not gender based [violence], it is political [reasons],” he said.
Susan Toth, an intake worker with the Hamilton YWCA, said the YWCA’s Speqtrum program provides help for LGBTQ2+ newcomers. She said the influx of asylum seekers and in Hamilton could be sparked by countries limiting the rights of LGBTQ2+ people.
“They’re coming here to be safe and to gain acceptance, and to feel that they are okay just being who they are,” she said.
‘There is a huge huge demand for working people’
Wanyeki, who says he has a degree in tourism management and previously worked as a banker, said he is working on getting his Ontario driver’s licence and hopes to work as a truck driver — a field that is currently experiencing a labour shortage.
Maria Antelo, with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said she would like the people of Hamilton need to show support for newcomers.
“They’re not here to add more to our housing crisis. There is a huge demand for working people in Canada as well. So let’s welcome refugees. Let’s be the community we’re supposed to be,” she said.
Ontita said he would like to thank the staff at the Good Shepherd for taking him and Wanyeki in, while they figure out their paperwork and look for work.
“They accepted us irrespective of our backgrounds or anything, and I can’t thank them any better. I just have to give back to the community someday,” he said.
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