Organizations in Ottawa calling for more support after recent spike in refugees seeking shelter

By Andrea Bennett & Victoria Williston

Over the past several weeks, Ottawa Mission said they’ve seen around three to four times the number of refugees and asylum seekers compared to previous years.

The shelter has collaborated with Matthew House – a local shelter focused on providing shelter, food, and refugee settlement assistance – in an effort to identify solutions to address the significant rise in refugees seeking shelter in the capital.

“Of 228 new intakes that came through our doors since the beginning of June, 87 were asylum seekers and refugees,” said the chief executive officer (CEO) of Ottawa Mission, Peter Tilley. “That’s unprecedented and disturbing to see numbers like this.”

Louisa Taylor, executive director at Refugee 613, explained that Ottawa is seeing more refugee claimants due to the federal government relocating refugees to other communities in the country. It came on the heels of the closure of Quebec’s now-closed Roxham Road unofficial border crossing.

Unlike Matthew House, the Ottawa Mission is not equipt to adequately help those applying for refugee status with daily support like food, shelter, and legal services.

“The first thing you need to do is get connected to Legal Aid and a lawyer who can help you submit your claim. If that does not happen, and that doesn’t typically happen in the shelter system – you’re stuck in limbo,” said Allan Reesor-Mcdowell, executive director of Matthew House.

He went on to say that the reason for overcrowding isn’t because there are too many refugees for the system but that it’s a lack of essential support on day one when they enter the shelter systems or are without housing and living on the street.

“Once you submit a refugee claim, you are able to get Ontario Works, temporarily, so then you have a little bit of income, and now you’re able to apply for a work permit,” said Reesor-Mcdowell.

Refugees who Matthew House assists don’t pay rent to the organization until they receive their work permit, which Reesor-Mcdowell said takes at least a couple of months, and that’s with the support and direction they receive from the organization. Those who don’t have that type of help may have trouble navigating Canada’s complex system, especially when they could also be a language barrier in addition to physical barriers like lack of housing.

He adds that the biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing in Ottawa and that he’s noticed it’s forcing people at Matthew House to group together to find housing once they’ve graduated from the program.

“If you have three people working, even if it’s not the most high-paying job, you can pool your money no matter what your income is and you can find something,” he said.

While overwhelmed refugee services in cities like Montreal and Toronto is nothing new, Tilley explained that the refugee housing crisis has finally arrived in the nation’s capital. He added that Ottawa’s shelter system was never intended to provide this type of service.

“For decades, our role is providing emergency support, and most people stay less than seven days before moving on to other accommodations, that’s why we were set up,” he explained. “In that mix is usually a small percentage of asylum seekers, but to have this many is unprecedented.”

Instead, he said the shelter was designed to support those struggling with addictions or mental health issues.

“This system of shelter was never put in place to do the function we are now,” he said. “It’s for somebody at the end of the line with nowhere else to turn, and we’re here to get them back on their feet.”

Of an estimated 87 asylum seekers that came through their doors since the beginning of June, 35 of them are still living in the shelter and have not been able to transition out of the system, he pointed out.

“When you’re bursting at the seams, and the numbers keep adding, and now asylum seekers are added to the mix, it’s not looking bright for the future,” expressed Tilley.

Prior to this surge in refugee claimants, the shelter was already over capacity handling the homeless crisis in Ottawa, and according to the Ottawa Mission, resources are now being diverted.

Tilley referred to the situation as a ‘national crisis’ and is calling on more partners to come to the table to identify possible solutions.

“We’ve had consultations with the city’s housing department, working together to come up with solutions, of which we haven’t found yet,” he added.

In July, the federal government announced $210 million in new funding to ensure communities are able to support vulnerable asylum claimants in Canada, with nearly $100 million of that going to Toronto. However, the amount going to Ottawa is determined after the fact.

“Ottawa will not know its allocation of funding from the IHAP until the final reimbursement request had been submitted at the end of 2023. Additionally, the program utilizes a cost-sharing model and will not fully cover costs incurred by the City. The federal government makes the determination for the amount of reimbursement based on the City’s funding request,” said Kale Brown, Manager, Homelessness Programs and Shelters with the City of Ottawa.

There are 30 to 40 organizations around Canada like Matthew House that provide support on day one, which gives refugee claimants the best chance of success, said Reesor-Mcdowell, and he went on to say that Canada needs a cohesive plan that’s supported by levels of government.

“What we’re seeing now is everyone pointing a finger. The feds say housing is a provincial issue, and they’re all pointing fingers. Come on. Let’s sit down, we know this is an issue.”



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