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Toronto mayor apologizes to asylum seekers who slept on streets as advocates call for action | CBC News


Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow apologized to hundreds of asylum seekers who spent weeks living on the street in the city’s downtown core after being denied access to the city’s shelter system.

On Friday, Chow visited to the Revivaltime Tabernacle Church and Dominion Church International Toronto, two churches that have been providing shelter to the asylum seekers, many of whom are from Africa.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to pick up, leave all your belongings and your friends and relatives and flee to another country,” Chow said.

“That’s who they are. They arrived here as refugees and I want to honour their courage and their resilience.

“I also want, on behalf of the City of Toronto and other levels of government, to apologize. The way they’ve been treated on the streets and the lack of dignity that they experience, there’s absolutely no excuse whatsoever,” Chow added.

Judith James, the pastor of Revivaltime Tabernacle Church.
Judith James, the pastor of Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, says the church’s ‘great sacrifice’ has resulted in ‘many challenges,’ and is hoping all levels of government will work together to find accommodation for the asylum seekers. (Evan Mitsui)

Toronto has been turning away asylum seekers from shelters since the beginning of June and referring them to federal programs after the number of asylum seekers in its shelter system grew by 500 per cent in 20 months, according to city officials.

However, many asylum seekers can’t get federal help if their claims haven’t been fully granted, leaving many in limbo with nowhere to sleep.

3,300 asylum seekers need shelter: mayor

Chow said Toronto has received some “short term funding” from both the federal and the provincial governments, but stressed that it’s “a very small amount.”

She said based on the amount of money that was available, city council approved 250 shelter spaces in hotels and they’ve all been used up already. 

“Yes, hotels are expensive, but our shelters are full,” she said, adding that there are currently 3,300 asylum seekers in need of shelter.

The mayor also reiterated her call to the federal government to help the city with more funding so that the asylum seekers can move out of the churches.

“This is not a reception centre, this is a church. It’s a church where people pray, get married, have funerals, the gym, summer programs for kids, basketball, Friday night drop in for teenagers,” she said.

“All of that [has been] cancelled because they are stepping up. We’re incredibly grateful for the churches, the African Canadian community, the Black community and all the generous donors… Thank you.”

Church’s ‘sacrifice’ has led to challenges: pastor

Judith James, the pastor of Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, said the congregation felt it was “important and necessary to house our brothers and sisters who are faced with deplorable conditions and found themselves without housing and sleeping in the streets of Toronto.”

But she said the church’s “great sacrifice” has resulted in “many challenges,” and is hoping all levels of government will work together to find accommodation for the asylum seekers.

A resident of RevivaltimeTabernacle, where more than 200 mostly African migrants have been sleeping, adjusts his bedding during a visit by Mayor Olivia Chow on July 28, 2023.
A resident of Revivaltime Tabernacle, where more than 200 mostly African migrants have been sleeping, adjusts his bedding during a visit by Toronto’s mayor on Friday. (Evan Mitsui)

“The regular working church has been disrupted and will soon impact on the lives of many members and families who have made plans like getting married… as well to celebrate significant life moments within our facility,” she said.

“We have pushed the electrical and hydro facilities of this church to their limit and have been running them on an ongoing, continuous basis with little to no reprieve,” James added. 

“This has meant astronomical costs as well as continuous infrastructure improvements taken by the members of this church.”

But the church will continue “to do what is necessary so these men and women do not have to face the conditions that they have grown all familiar with prior to intervention,” James said.

Churches’ actions a ‘temporary’ solution: pastor

Pastor Eddie Jjumba, of Dominion Church International Toronto, said what the churches have done should not be seen as a permanent solution.

“It is a Band-Aid. It is a very temporary solution,” Jjumba said.

“Since the people came from the street to our church location a lot of disruption has happened, and that is the truth. We are not complaining, we are just sharing an experience.

“The reason we are here today is to raise our voice one more time. And maybe, if we need to, we’ll raise it again as many times as we need to until action is taken,” he added.

Revivaltime Tabernacle Church
The exterior of Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, where some 200 African migrants are being housed, is pictured on July 18, 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Diane Walter, executive director of Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services, whose organization helped facilitate moving the asylum seekers off the street into the churches, said she finds it difficult to believe that they are not  yet placed in the city’s shelter system.

“This particular situation is untenable. It is untenable because the facilities at both Dominion and Revivaltime were not created for this… And the folks that are here, while they’re getting culturally appropriate meals and really good service, they should not be here,” Walter said.

“It’s untenable for the organization that I run because we’re relatively small,” she added, noting Margaret’s provides staff that help the churches with the asylum seekers, doing things like cooking and cleaning.

“It’s most untenable for the folks that are here. They deserve to be receiving the treatment that others have received… to get the care and support from the government that they deserve. They should not be continuing to sleep on cots for another two weeks,” Walter added.

“They deserve much better.”


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