Refugees and migrants flee wars and poverty, only to discover another struggle – life on the streets of Canada. With winter approaching, this issue becomes even more pressing.
According to Statistics Canada, the majority of recent immigrants settle outside Canada’s three largest urban centres: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
In Toronto, 40 refugee claimants currently live at Romero House, which offers housing, immigration and settlement support. An additional dozen refugees are housed with friends and neighbours through Romero House’s Community Host Program.
Executive director Francesca Allodi-Ross said the nonprofit believes in a community-based welcome for refugees, which means having a safe place for them to live when they first arrive, and supporting their transition to affordable housing.
Two years ago, Allodi-Ross said her team started noticing that Toronto’s shelters were full and refugee claimants couldn’t access them. This summer, the situation worsened, with hundreds of refugees sleeping on the streets every night. Since the majority of unhoused refugee claimants come from African countries, the African-led organizations advocated for more aid for homeless refugees in the city.
In response, the federal government committed $97 million to the city’s shelter system while the Ontario government committed $40 million through the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit for rent supplements.
The Refugee Reception Centre recently opened in Ontario’s Peel Region, acting as a central location in the Greater Toronto Area for refugees to access information and support.
Allodi-Ross said that all three levels of government need to address the issue together. She wants Canadians to put pressure on the governments by speaking up on behalf of refugee claimants.
She said individuals can also donate to organizations that support refugees. “If people have an extra bedroom in their house or an apartment for rent, and they want to make it available to refugee claimants, they can do it through Romero House’s Community Host Program and through the City of Toronto’s DonateTO website,” she said.
Samuel Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal, said home-sharing and home-welcoming could be one of many potential solutions to address homelessness among newcomers until the housing crisis is resolved.
“I live in a community on the west end of Montreal. I know from the evaluation that was done recently that we have more bedrooms than we have people in the community,” Watts said. “This suggests that there are a lot of homes with three, four, five bedrooms with two people living in it.”
Abdulkarim, a refugee and resident of the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) in Vancouver, said landlords may be reluctant to welcome newcomers due to concerns about renting at a lower price and establishing a tenant-landlord relationship.
“When I arrived in Canada, I was able to access the “211 service” (in B.C.) to find available shelters,” said Abdulkarim, who requested only his first name be published. “They gave me phone numbers, which I called to ask for available openings.
“Most of the time, they did not have openings. But this does not mean that there are no openings throughout the city. However, blindly calling 100 shelters in Vancouver to get a place is frustrating, and leads to helplessness. People stop trying and stay on the street.”
Abdulkarim said an online list of all shelters with real-time bed availability would make it easier for homeless people to find shelter.
UGM spokesperson Sarah Chew said established immigrants who connect with newcomers often lead to offers of a room to rent in their homes.
“Refugees and newcomers build a community in Vancouver, either through the UGM or outside,” Chew said. “We do everything we can to provide that space and to help them build that community.
“It is an honour and privilege to welcome people into our communities and to give them a sense of belonging. Whether it is being a good friend or a neighbour, as well as pointing newcomers to the resources, I think this is something everyone can do.”
Makhabbat Aitekenova, a journalist from Kazakhstan, is a graduate of Nazarbayev University, the country's top institution known for its English-language instruction. With over five years of experience in broadcast journalism and digital media, Makhabbat is skilled in writing for television, radio and newspapers. She recently arrived in Canada in September 2023, with plans to further her career in journalism, focusing on local and immigrant stories. In her spare time, Makhabbat enjoys reading books about Canada, with her latest literary delight being 'The Colony of Unrequited Dreams' by Wayne Johnston. You are welcome to follow her on LinkedIn and X.