Refugees moved out of Toronto churches and into hotels across Ontario

Click to play video: 'Some Asylum seekers sheltering in Toronto churches being moved to hotels across Ontario'
Some Asylum seekers sheltering in Toronto churches being moved to hotels across Ontario
WATCH ABOVE: After spending the summer on the streets or crammed into churches in North York and Etobicoke, some migrants are being moved into more comfortable conditions elsewhere. But the housing problem is still far from solved. Mark Carcasole reports – Oct 6, 2023

When hundreds of African migrants showed up in Toronto over the summer, there was nowhere in the city’s shelter system to accommodate them all. Many of the asylum seekers ended up sleeping on the streets.

The efforts of three Toronto churches, Revivaltime Tabernacle and Dominion Church International in North York, and Pilgrim Feast Tabernacle in Etobicoke, kept many of those men and women off the streets with food, clothing and beds.

Subsisting off out-of-pocket expenses, private donations and funding of $50,000 each from the city, the churches maintained cramped, but safe spaces for their clientele; but they were never sustainable long-term.

On Friday, the federal government began efforts to spread out migrants across the province as part of a program launched in June 2022.

At Dominion Church, it was a bittersweet day. After caring for at times up to 250 asylum seekers over the summer, temporary shelter manager Miriam Kutessa felt like they were saying goodbye to family as the buses pulled into the parking in the morning and afternoon, taking 96 people to temporary living spaces in Niagara Falls and Windsor.

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“That’s what’s best for them,” said Kutessa, tears welling in her eyes after waving goodbye to those aboard the second bus.

“I wish them a good life. I want them to do well.”

Friday marked the second time refugees have been transferred from Dominion to new locations. Last month a group of 46 people were bused to temporary spaces in Cornwall.

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“That’s taking off some of the pressure from the hall that we’ve been using,” Kutessa said.

The church had taken over space at a neighbouring banquet hall to house all the refugees, but eventually, the landlord asked for it back.

Before boarding his Niagara Falls-bound bus, Kenyan migrant John Mochama told reporters that despite living in tight quarters since he and his wife arrived in August, he feels only gratitude and positivity.

“It has been nice. I don’t have anything to complain about. Once you have food, you have shelter where you are a stranger, you thank God for that.”

While moving asylum seekers from one place to another relieves individual strain on cities and volunteer groups, it is not a permanent solution. Kutessa said the system can’t continue to operate this way.

“The best solution would be to find a permanent space so even future immigrants who come in can be helped, so we’re not scrambling last minute.”

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Political leaders from all three levels of government have been discussing solutions, but there’s been nothing concrete yet. In many ways, the issue has become a multi-level game of hot potato.

On Thursday, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow told reporters the city needs help.

“Because the number of refugees keeps increasing, we need both the provincial and the federal government — especially the federal government — to step in and help.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the refugee situation in Ontario the same day. “There’s more to do,” he told reporters. “So we are going to continue to be there to work with the city of Toronto and we’re also continuing to call on the provincial government to step up around its responsibilities as well.”

For now, Dominion Church will continue to help those who stayed behind, with a little more space and a little less strain. Their spirits are lifted by stories of former guests they say have found employment and education opportunities in Cornwall over the last month.

Mochama is hoping for those same opportunities.

“You see I’m excited,” he said, smiling at the prospect. “Thank you to all those who have operated in terms of giving us this opportunity to have another home.”

Of course, he also plans to make a stop to see Niagara Falls with his own eyes.

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Revivaltime Tabernacle is no longer housing any refugees, having had to take its space back for after-school programs in September.

Pilgrim Feast Tabernacle said it is focusing on finding affordable housing for the refugees staying there. An official told Global News some migrants there were uncomfortable with being moved to other locales, feeling there were greater opportunities available in Toronto.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told Global News that since the program to transfer refugees across Ontario began on June 30, 2022, a total of 9,798 asylum seekers have been moved: 702 to Ottawa; 1,418 to Windsor; 5,943 to Niagara Falls; 1,709 to Cornwall; seven to Kingston; and 19 to Mississauga.

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