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Mayor Olivia Chow apologizes to refugees, asylum seekers who slept on Toronto streets

Mayor Olivia Chow apologized on Friday for what she said amounted to unacceptable treatment of refugees and asylum seekers who were left sleeping on the streets of downtown Toronto for weeks while renewing her calls for more funding from the federal government to deal with the crisis.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to pick up, leave your belongings, and your friends and relatives and flee to another country. That’s who they are. They arrived here as refugees. And I want to honour their courage and their resilience,” Chow said during a news conference at Revivaltime Tabernacle Church.

“I also want on behalf of the City of Toronto and other levels of government to apologize for the way they’ve been treated on the streets and the lack of dignity that they experienced.”

Chow was at the North York church to visit the refugees and asylum seekers being accommodated there for the past two weeks.

“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.

The church near Dufferin Street and Finch Avenue West is just one of the several groups that have stepped up to house the hundreds of refugees who were turned away from Toronto’s overwhelmed shelter system last month with the city referring them to federal programs. That left many spending weeks outside a shelter intake downtown in the heat and rain.

Eventually, the federal government gave Toronto $97 million to provide shelter spaces for refugees and asylum seekers. While she was thankful for the money, Chow had said that the money was not enough to address the issue.

On Friday, the mayor renewed her call to Ottawa to pledge long-term solutions to help refugees and asylum seekers coming to Toronto.

One of them is establishing a reception centre at or near Toronto Pearson International Airport where claimants can find assistance upon landing in the country.

Chow said churches should not be responsible for helping refugees find housing and work.

“This is not a reception centre. This is a church — a church where people pray, get married, have funerals,” Chow said, adding that the facility’s gym, where summer programs for youths were supposed to be held, has also closed to accommodate more spaces.

“All of that cancelled because they are stepping up.”

While she is thankful for the churches and everyone who has donated so far, Chow said the federal government “should do the same.”

“It cannot be a short-term fix. We need a long-term solution. That small amount of money is not enough,” she said, noting that the city needs at least $160 million to ensure there are shelter spaces available.

Chow noted that the additional 250 shelter beds approved by city council last week have been nearly allocated.

“We’re full again. We’re at 3,300 refugees,” she said. The city notes that as of today, 242 asylum seekers have been referred to the temporary shelter spaces, which are at two hotels and an existing city emergency shelter location.

Earlier this week, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland indicated that Ottawa won’t be able to provide Toronto additional funds to help the city with its $1 billion shortfall, saying in a letter to Chow that “the ability of the federal government to spend is not infinite.”

In response, Chow said on Friday that if the federal government does not want to deal with the city’s fiscal crisis, it should still fulfill its responsibility to refugees and asylum seekers.

“The City of Toronto is broke. It’s not the first time you heard it. They didn’t want to deal with that deficit. Fine. That’s okay. We’ll figure it out,” Chow said.

“But we have people daily arriving in this country, and they are arriving at Pearson. They’re arriving to Toronto, to the Greater Toronto Area, and we need the federal government to take their responsibility seriously and help us welcome them.”

Chow urged the newly appointed federal ministers of housing and immigration to visit the church to see the situation firsthand.

“They need to see the mattresses, the outpouring of support, but there’s also the quiet desperation that are being faced by these refugee claimants,” she said.

“Come and visit. Do it soon because this situation cannot continue. They need their churches back. The young people need their churches back.”

– With files from Joshua Freeman

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