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How people came together to help asylum seekers sleeping outside Toronto’s shelter referral centre

Long-time outreach worker Lorraine Lam feared the worst when a taxi from Pearson Airport carrying three refugee claimants – a mother and her two children – pulled up outside Toronto’s Central Intake site at 129 Peter St. one recent evening Monday evening.

“I thought, ‘oh lord pls no. do not be coming here’,” Lam, a well-known Toronto affordable housing and anti-poverty advocate who has been helping support the city’s unhoused refugees and asylum seekers in recent weeks, wrote in a July 10 Twitter thread as she watched the young African family lug their suitcases over to the pavement where she was sitting.

The kids, 9 and 13, plopped themselves down on the ground in front of Lam. Their visibly distraught mother, on the other hand, tried to hide her tears from her children as she faced the prospect of sleeping outside that night, she wrote.

Lam said that the woman had spent every penny she had on a hotel room and had been calling the city’s emergency shelter line repeatedly to no avail.

After several phone calls, Lam was able to find them a safe place to stay for a few nights. The woman and her two kids have since relocated to a temporary shelter.

Just three days before posting that Twitter thread, Lam along with long-time community and crisis worker and fellow advocate Diana Chan-McNally became the first of many groups and individuals to help when they set up a crowdfunding page to collect funds and purchase and distribute essential supplies for the dozens of people sleeping on the sidewalk outside the city’s shelter referral centre.

Their goal was to raise $10,000. So far, supporters have donated almost $82,000.

Earlier this week, Chan-McNally told that she and Lam both “knew it would be bad” when the City of Toronto announced in late May that it would start referring refugee claimants and asylum seekers who show up at full shelters to federal programs.

“We started seeing people gathering at 129 Peter…and it’s not over yet,” she said, adding it’s “ludicrous” that the government is not doing its part to help these vulnerable people.

“I appreciate everyone being so generous, but at the same time we can’t handle this without more government intervention.”

On Twitter, Lam urged people to contact their local elected officials and urge them to do more to address this long-standing crisis.

Aside from purchasing tons of supplies and food, Lam and Chan-McNally also donated $20,000 to the Black Community Housing Advisory Table (BCHAT), a coalition of Black leaders, Black-led, and Black-serving organizations that in recent weeks has mobilized to collect funds and set up emergency shelter and aid.

The coalition is primarily helping support Downsview’s Revivaltime Tabernacle and Dominion Church International (DCI), which have both opened their doors to temporarily shelter more than 300 people.

“These are folks that look like us so there’s a personal piece to this,” BCHAT’s co-chair Diane Walter told

People gather around the stage at Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, where African and Black refugees and asylum seekers received emergency shelter, prior to a conference with Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow in North York, Ont., on Friday, July 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

Walter, who is the executive director of Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services in downtown Toronto, said it’s been a “huge collaborative effort” to help hundreds of unhoused people from Uganda, Ethiopia, Chad, Gambia, and Nigeria over the last few weeks.

“It’s been quite the challenge, but we want these folks to have a better life,” she said, adding BCHAT felt it had no choice but to “do what the government should have been doing all along.”

“We just want to look forward and make sure these folks are not re-traumatized,” she added.

Walker went on to say that Canada is known for being a kind and generous country, and it’s important that unhoused refugee claimants and asylum seekers know and see that.

On July 16, GTA philanthropist Mohamad Fakih also made a personal pledge of up to $20,000 to house refugee claimants and asylum seekers waiting for emergency shelter outside 129 Peter St. And while those funds are so far mostly unspent, Fakih said he’d be making a donation directly to Revivaltime Tabernacle and hopes others will do the same.


One of the key challenges Toronto is contending with is a lack of money to shelter its 3,000 refugee claimants and asylum seekers, who the city said make up a third of the shelter system.

In May, funds provided to Toronto’s shelter clients through the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB), a program jointly run by the provincial and federal governments that helps low-income households pay for rental housing in the private market, ran out. This has resulted in a significant number of shelter clients staying longer than planned in the city’s shelter system.

Earlier this year, the federal government also stopped providing funds through its Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), which supports provinces and municipalities on a cost-sharing basis to provide interim housing for refugee claimants and asylum seekers.

Further, Toronto’s housing and shelter crisis has been exacerbated by the recent amendment of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which since late March has prevented people in Canada and the United States from crossing the border and making a refugee claim. This agreement came into effect in December 2004 with the goal of better managing the flow of refugee claimants at the shared land border, but was modified this spring following a significant number of migrants at Quebec’s Roxton Road bridge.

Despite an overall reduction in the number of people seeking refuge in Canada and the United States, Toronto is still seeing roughly 350 new shelter clients every month.

A federal program for the group of migrants from the unofficial Roxton Road bridge crossing is now housing thousands of people in hotel rooms across Ontario, but the provincial and federal governments recently told CTV News Toronto that they do not have the capacity to absorb the ongoing influx.

Faced with increasing financial pressures and a roughly $1B budget shortfall, the City of Toronto announced in late May that effective June 1 it would begin referring refugee claimants and asylum seekers who show up at full shelters to federal programs for support.

At that time, Toronto also started reviewing refugee claimants/asylum seekers already in its shelter system to determine who is eligible for Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s services followed by referrals to federally run hotels.

In the meantime, dozens of these individuals found themselves waiting for days, even weeks, outside Central Intake for a referral to an emergency shelter.

A week ago, Toronto’s new mayor Olivia Chow dedicated her first City Council motion to addressing the refugee crisis by recommending that the city dedicate 150 new shelter spaces for them, which will mainly be done through the renewal of shelter hotel contracts, as well as identify 100 more spaces in the coming days.

Chow’s motion, which Toronto City Council unanimously supported, also called on the city to continue working with the provincial and federal governments on the immediate crisis as well as a long-term plan.

“Work will continue this week to review space options to reach council’s decision to make 250 shelter spaces temporarily available,” the city said in a release.

The City of Toronto has since announced that it has found shelter space for 212 refugee claimants and asylum seekers at two hotels as well as at an emergency shelter location. The city’s immediate goal was to secure 150 spots.

Chow also apologized to refugees during a visit to Revivaltime Tabernacle on Friday for “the way they have been treated on the streets and the lack of dignity that they experienced.”

“There’s absolutely no excuses whatsoever to be at a new country lost, both physically, spiritually and materially. Some literally lost their belonging, their identification, that is critical for them to apply for refugee status. And that’s just not acceptable,” she said.

Donations of food, clothing or household items are also being accepted through partner agencies such as United Way or through the city’s DonateTO webpage.

After much media attention, the federal government said last week that it is allocating $212 million in new funding through IHAP to municipalities impacted by this crisis. Toronto is slated to receive $97 million of that money.

Regardless, Chow said in a statement that Toronto still remains roughly $60 million short of what it needs to get a handle on this crisis as federal IHAP funding for existing refugee shelter spaces as well as support with additional housing, shelter space, and personnel has not been received.

Last week, the city and the province also announced a contribution of $6.67 million each to the COHB to support another 1,350 individuals and families in Toronto.

On Tuesday, Toronto also put out a call for landlords with available space to flag it to the city, saying that refugee claimants will receive support to pay their rent from that benefit.

With files from CP24’s Joshua Freeman and Katherine DeClerq and CTV News Toronto’s Jon Woodward.

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