‘I’m pretty much speechless’: Outrage after Toronto turns down federal shelter offer

Click to play video: 'Toronto mayor criticizes feds over $5M offer for refugee shelter space, says not enough'
Toronto mayor criticizes feds over $5M offer for refugee shelter space, says not enough
WATCH: As Global News first reported, Toronto turned down an offer from the Trudeau government which would have opened city armouries during a bridge period until an Exhibition Grounds building more suitable was ready for people sleeping on the streets. After immigration minister Marc Miller told Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow the offer still stands via X on Wednesday evening, Chow fired back at Ottawa, saying the feds haven’t done nearly enough to cover housing for approximately 5,000 refugees. Matthew Bingley has the latest – Nov 23, 2023

The federal government was prepared to offer the City of Toronto two locations as temporary shelters, and operational funding for a third location but the city declined the offer late last week, Global News has learned.

At its November meeting, City Council passed a motion requesting Ottawa “take urgent action to address the refugee crisis including funding and operationalizing emergency accommodation at federal sites, including federal armouries, and funding and operationalizing a regional refugee reception centre.” At that same meeting, all 25 councillors and Mayor Olivia Chow signed a letter addressed to the Ministers of National Defence and Emergency Preparedness, reiterating the requests and urgency.

The latest call for aid came months after a bitter battle between the city, province, and federal government over refugee housing that led to hundreds of asylum seekers being left out in the elements during the summer.

Multiple sources confirmed with Global News the federal government offered the city an option last week, which would open both the Moss Park and Fort York Armouries as shelter space until mid-December. According to one source, as part of the deal, Ottawa would also provide $5 million to the city so it could operate a shelter at the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition Place grounds for the remainder of the winter.

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The city reportedly declined the offer late last week.

Click to play video: 'Toronto refugee housing crisis continues in the cold'
Toronto refugee housing crisis continues in the cold

Following the fall fiscal update, Mayor Chow took aim at the federal government again for a lack of support for refugee housing. At a separate housing announcement on Wednesday, Chow pointed to the cold weather expected this weekend, underlining the urgency.

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Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, Marc Miller, confirmed the federal government had offered funding to facilitate shelter space at the Better Living Centre. “The Federal Government has put an offer on the table, a financial offer on the table, as well as looked at Exhibition Place as a place that would be more suitable for people to get a shelter over their heads,” said Miller. He stopped short of speaking to the offer being declined, but said some of the calls coming from the city publicly are inconsistent with internal discussions.

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“I think it’s important for all of us to get our acts together and be clear what the objective is, which is to get a roof over people’s [heads],” said Miller. He also said the armouries are not an ideal location to house people and his understanding from speaking to the Mayor’s Office was there were more viable options they were willing to look at.
Click to play video: 'Feds announce 2 housing projects in Toronto for ‘at-risk people’'
Feds announce 2 housing projects in Toronto for ‘at-risk people’

Miller’s spokesperson Bahoz Dara Aziz later confirmed with Global News that the deal included a bridge offer of opening the armouries until the Better Living Centre was ready. She added that the Exhibition Place building was more suited to be a shelter, because the armouries only had minimal bathrooms in comparison. Dara Aziz added there is still money on the table and that talks were ongoing, but she didn’t clarify how much or how the funds would be earmarked.

Housing advocate Cathy Crowe called the decision to turn down the offer “a scandal” adding that all levels of government should be ashamed that a deal hasn’t been made while people are left sleeping on the street.

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“I’m pretty much speechless and to me it just suggests that there is a lot of politicking going on behind closed doors and the basic humanity of providing shelter is not front and centre,” she said.

The Vice-Chair of Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee, Councillor Brad Bradford, agreed the decision was not the right one and raises questions. “If there is an opportunity to open a shelter to open the armouries, if that was on the table even a day ago, that is too long,” Bradford said “we need to be moving fast on that, you can’t play politics with people’s lives.”

In response to questions, the Mayor’s Office said in a statement the city requires $200 million of support this year to cover approximately 4,000 refugees currently living in the city’s shelter system. The cost will balloon to $240 million in 2024, which the city also expects federal support to cover.

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

The Mayor’s press secretary, Arianne Robinson, added in the statement that “the City is already working to open the Better Living Centre, as part of the Winter Services Plan, in the coming weeks.” But the city’s communication’s division disputes Robinson’s assertion the Exhibition Place location was part of the city’s plans.

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“The Better Living Centre was not one of the components included when the City launched the Winter Plan in October,” said spokesperson Russell Baker. “The City of Toronto has not received any offer from the Federal Government to cover 100 per cent of the costs associated with sheltering refugee claimants.”

In order to open the armouries, Ottawa first needs to receive a Request for Assistance (RFA) from the provincial government. The city sent a request for an RFA to Emergency Management Ontario and the Treasury Board Secretariat on Nov. 17 and are still awaiting a response.

The Minister also said a deal between Peel Region to establish a reception centre for refugees and asylum seekers was “close.” Miller said he hoped to announce in the next couple days plans to open a location close to Pearson International Airport which was better suited to welcome those arriving and triage them.

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