The Homeless Asylum-Seekers of Canada

As a cold winter approaches, African refugees are sleeping rough on the streets of Toronto

The Homeless Asylum-Seekers of Canada
Asylum-seekers outside Toronto’s shelter intake center in July 2023. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

They crowd a sidewalk in downtown Toronto, on a corner etched in a canyon of skyscrapers, sweltering in the heat. Their suitcases are piled in heaps nearby, draped with blue tarps and garbage bags. When it rains — hot July thunderstorms that drench and soak — they keep their heads exposed. Officials say they need to see their faces. When night falls, this will be their bed as well, a mattress of cardboard over the hot pavement. Most are Black, newly arrived from East Africa, running from corruption and poverty. Many are queer as well, arriving to live a dignified life away from persecution in prosperous, welcoming Canada. Or so they thought.

In July of this year, some 200 asylum-seekers found themselves sleeping on the streets of Toronto, unable to afford housing, locked out of homeless shelters and caught in a fight between three levels of government. Their plight captures the increasing gap between Canada’s PR-crafted image and its reality at home: a country with a chronic housing crisis that no decision-maker wants to own, even as it erodes the country’s capacity to shelter its own citizens — let alone accept refugees. The result is the vulnerable sleeping on the street, as the country’s shiny veneer gradually cracks and peels away.

Housing costs in Canada have been rising exponentially for decades, but nowhere is the crisis as acute as in Toronto, Ontario, the country’s largest city at 3 million people. Rents across the country have grown by 20% since 2021, yet Toronto’s have risen twice as fast. To affordably rent an average one-bedroom apartment in the city, one would need to make $90,000 per year — enough to place in the 90th percentile of all earners in the country.

Unsurprisingly, homelessness has become more common. Yet the federal government is intent on billing the country as a safe haven. After highly publicized admissions of thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees, Canada set a target of admitting 79,500 refugees in 2022. Unlike those high-profile, targeted admissions, asylum-seekers arrive with neither official refugee status nor a sponsor to help them out. They have to forge their own way, in a city where the middle class can’t afford an apartment.

Lacking access to market or public housing, refugees have increasingly been forced into homeless shelters.

After Canada lifted COVID-related travel restrictions on the U.S. border in 2022, Denise Hansen, a program coordinator at a downtown refugee shelter in Toronto, noticed a steady uptick in refugees seeking shelter. She was onto something: Toronto’s shelter system saw a fivefold increase in refugee users between September 2021 and May 2023. Not that there was much room to begin with — Hansen’s shelter regularly has refugees sleeping on makeshift cots in dining areas, and most shelters operate at capacity throughout the year.

Yet by June of this year, Hansen noticed something different. “We started seeing individuals calling multiple times a day, saying they were sleeping outside,” she says. What Hansen was witnessing was not just an influx of refugees falling on hard times, but a concerted effort by the powers that be to deprive them of shelter and manufacture a moral crisis for political gain.

Canada has three levels of government: the federal government, based in Ottawa; provincial governments (analogous to U.S. states); and municipalities. Toronto is situated in the province of Ontario and has its own city government, sharing responsibilities with the provincial and federal governments. Deciding who gets into Canada, who can stay and who counts as a refugee is the federal government’s job. Housing, meanwhile, is traditionally the purview of the provinces. When the refugees turned up on the City of Toronto’s doorstep, and the city couldn’t afford to house them, it led to a dispute. Since admitting and caring for refugees is the responsibility of the federal government, said the city in May, the federal government should fund the cost of housing them, to the tune of $100 million.

The federal government did not. And so, the city played hardball: On June 1, they declared that any asylum-seekers looking for a bed at their shelters would be turned away. In practice, this meant sending refugees — often straight from the airport — to a single building downtown, 129 Peter St., where staff were supposed to connect them with a bed. These beds did not exist, and so they slept where they were — on the sidewalk, in the rain, following the only other instruction the city gave them: call Service Canada, the federal government’s hotline. “In my eyes, it was a way to threaten the federal government,” said Hansen. The buck had been passed.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto said this decision “was not made lightly” and that “after almost a year of requesting urgent funding and logistical support,” they “needed to make difficult decisions to meet significant humanitarian needs.”

As the situation outside 129 Peter St. worsened, communities acted. A loose, Black-led coalition of social justice groups came together to support the growing encampment, providing food, water and support. Reverend Alexa Gilmour, a minister with the Protestant United Church of Canada, was one of those providing relief. Without coordinated effort from the government, she says, things quickly got out of hand. “We were inundated with food,” she explains. “For the next three or four days, it was a bit of a circus.” Shelter was only secured after the coalition bused some 200 asylum-seekers to two churches, where they slept in gymnasiums and spare rooms. A church leader told the Toronto Star that the strain of providing electricity and over 600 meals per day to the refugees was unsustainable. Sooner or later, their exhausted guests would have to flee somewhere else.

As if this weren’t complicated enough, the whole crisis comes in the aftermath of the previous mayor’s sudden resignation over an affair with a staffer. The call to refuse refugees shelter was announced by an unelected interim mayor, Jennifer McKelvie. After a hectic, ad-hoc by-election featuring over 100 candidates (and one dog), voters chose the veteran progressive politician Olivia Chow as their new mayor, ending over a decade of conservative rule in the city. Chow, to her credit, made the city’s refugee crisis her first priority, immediately opening 150 new shelter spaces to refugee claimants by renewing contracts with hotels.

The new spaces helped, but also indicated a deeper problem. Toronto’s shelter system is not supposed to act as public housing. It’s for short-term stays, and relies on a steady flow of people moving on, opening up spaces for the next person who needs a bed. Yet with rents skyrocketing, people aren’t leaving, and it’s clogging the pipe. Add a massive influx of refugees and things break down. “I had a good friend who is a refugee from Eritrea, and he lived in the shelter system for a year and a half before they were able to find him housing,” says Gilmour. “If you have 400 people arriving at Pearson airport monthly, and you aren’t pushing that many people out of the shelter system, then you’ve got a crisis.”

Gilmour says that the majority of asylum-seekers she’s encountered are from Kenya, and tend to mention economic challenges and high costs of living as their reason to move. A recent clearing of a visa backlog for Kenyans may have also contributed to the surge, though Gilmour is unsure by how much. Crackdowns on LGBTQ+ rights across East Africa have also played a part. In June, Kenya drafted a law making gay sex punishable by upward of 10 years in jail, with one politician saying he aims to “kick LGBT people out of Kenya completely,” according to Pink News. A similar law was passed in Uganda in May, and lawmakers in both Tanzania and South Sudan are planning crackdowns of their own. Ugandan refugees have made up part of the population seeking shelter in Toronto and, in July, one Kenyan refugee told Vice News she had fled her country for fear of being persecuted for her sexuality.

It doesn’t help that the government programs that ensure flow out of the shelter system are themselves being undermined by the housing crisis. Rent supplements funded by the provincial and federal governments have historically been a good way to get refugees into market housing, says Gilmour. Yet rising rents mean the same budget helps fewer and fewer families, leaving more stranded in the shelter system for longer. Toronto’s annual share of funding for rent top-ups ran dry after only two months this year and, in May, the city said it would need another $20 million in funds to last the year. When Mayor Chow took office in July, she and her provincial counterparts each chipped in $6.7 million, which she claimed would provide housing to 1,350 households. The same day, the federal government met the city’s demands at last, announcing a one-time gift of $97 million to pay for temporary housing for asylum-seekers.

By mid-July, with most of the refugees evacuated to churches and all levels of government pledging funding, it appeared progress was finally being made. It would not last. In her pledge to expand the rent top-up program, Mayor Chow asked the federal government for a further $27 million to keep it going. Tough, said the feds. In a letter to Mayor Chow sent just under a week later, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected Toronto’s request for support, arguing that the city should be able to pull funds from its own accounts, or else ask the province for help, not them. And thus the bickering resumed.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada government department told New Lines that “the new injection for federal funding will undoubtedly be helpful,” but a proper solution would “require participation from every level of government.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the city told New Lines that “Until our partners at the government of Canada and the province of Ontario provide immediate additional funding,” they would “continue to do all we can to give asylum seekers the dignified welcome they deserve.”

Meanwhile, the refugees remain. Some are hopeful — Gilmour, the minister, says a “God will provide” attitude is getting many through the day. Others are exhausted. “They have said to us explicitly, ‘I just want to go home,’” says Hansen, choking up. “I don’t know why there’s a narrative that we provide for newcomers, because we really don’t.”

Others have questioned why, when Canada could fast-track so many Ukrainian visitors (they are not designated as refugees, but as temporary visitors), it chose to leave Black asylum-seekers to sleep on the streets. “It really shows how, as a people, we disregard Black queer life,” says Hansen. “Only now that I say it out loud do I really realize it.”

Canada’s economy relies on continually importing new Canadians, which has resulted in a widespread political consensus in favor of mass immigration. Despite occasional cultural flare-ups — former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government proposing a “barbaric cultural practices hotline,” and Quebec’s banning of certain religious garb, for instance — movements to restrict immigration or welcome fewer refugees are the exception rather than the rule. Even when Toronto refused to house refugees, it called on the federal government to support them, not restrict their numbers. Yet however welcoming Canadians may be in spirit, their promises are being undermined by their country’s inability to house residents and newcomers alike, turning open arms into empty virtue signaling on the world stage.

With the cash taps at least temporarily turned back on, advocates hope that the flows out of the shelter system will resume, opening up spaces for the newcomers landing in the city. The housing crisis rages on, however, and governments continue to bicker. There have been some hopeful signs: Ahead of its return to legislature this fall, the federal government has put housing as its top priority, and is considering a list of policy recommendations that includes a housing accord spanning all levels of government. If adopted, it could help bring the kind of cooperation that gets roofs built. Yet all this will take time, and the cold Canadian winter approaches. It may be only a matter of months before more people seeking a better life find themselves homeless and forgotten in Toronto, shivering on the streets of the world’s most welcoming country.

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