Peel failing to comply with ‘no turn away policy’ as shelter system grapples with 247 percent occupancy rate fuelled by spike in asylum seekers
As Peel’s maxed out shelters are struggling to take in asylum seekers, the Region of Peel is grappling with how to meet the soaring demand for emergency support and failing on its policy to turn nobody away.
“We have staff who have been in the unfortunate position of having to turn folks away since early June/mid July,” Sean Baird, Peel’s commissioner of human services, told Regional councillors during a September 14 meeting. “Many of our staff have not been in that situation and [where we’ve] had to actually turn people away so we have folks who are in tears having to have those conversations with folks who are then camped 20 feet outside of the door of that same shelter.”
A recent report to the Region revealed Peel is seeing a dramatic rise in the number of asylum claimants requiring emergency shelter. The shelter system in Peel Region has long been used to temporarily house asylum claimants who find themselves homeless while trying to settle in Canada. Historically, according to the Region, asylum claimants have accounted for approximately five percent of Peel’s shelter population. In an alarming revelation, the report noted Peel’s shelter system is currently operating at a 247 percent occupancy rate and asylum claimants account for approximately 57 percent of these occupants.
“As a result of rising levels of global unrest, Peel Region, like other municipalities across Ontario and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), is experiencing sharp and unprecedented increases in the number asylum claimants in need of support,” the report states. “The number of asylum claimants seeking emergency shelter in Peel started to surpass historical norms in the spring of 2023. Throughout the summer, the number of individuals and families seeking support increased dramatically, to levels never before experienced in Peel.”
As previously highlighted by The Pointer, the Region has been failing to meet the demand in the community for those in desperate need of a place to seek shelter.
The report notes that as of August 27, 730 asylum claimants (660 households) are temporarily residing in Peel’s shelter overflow hotels — an increase from 99 households in May — with 16 camped outdoors waiting for assistance. The province is predicting that this year alone, Ontario could receive more than 72,000 asylum claimants — nearly twice as many as the year before.
“The sharp, unexpected, and unprecedented increase in the number of refugee claimants seeking temporary shelter and supports is putting significant strains on Peel’s already overburdened shelter system,” it states.
“I have been horrified to hear how asylum claimants are being treated in Peel Region. Canada has always been a welcoming country where people are treated humanely and I don’t believe that’s happening right now,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said in response to the report’s findings.
“What happens when it snows? I know we’re in a major operational deficit with this at the Region… and all we hear is fingers pointed at different levels of government [about] who’s going to fix this? And I don’t think there’s an adequate level of attention on what’s about to happen. It's going to get cold.”
Baird told The Pointer in July that the people who are turned away are still provided with access to food, transportation, and referrals to other community supports such as food banks. At the time, he said staff believed current levels of demand would ease into the fall months, but that has yet to be the case.
Peel Family Shelter is currently operating out of a Motel 6 in Mississauga, a temporary location for the service.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
These pressures are not just being felt by the Region. Food Banks Mississauga CEO Meghan Nicholls recently told The Pointer the organization is seeing an increase in refugees and asylum seekers seeking out the food banks services.
“I'm very pleased that Canada opened its doors, but we didn't equip those folks, or inform them well enough what the situation would be when they got here and the fact that food banks had to step in and that community donations are ensuring that folks brought in through a federal immigration program are fed to me as a deficiency on the policies, and the supports that the federal government put in place for these newcomers that shouldn't have fallen to us,” she explained.
“We're proud to do it. We'll continue to feed anyone who needs food, but it just adds to how much money and food we need to raise.” This year’s annual Thanksgiving Drive is striving to raise $1 million through the month of September and into October to respond to the urgent need for food that continues to plague the community amid an affordability crisis.
While the Region of Peel facilitates a number of services to provide shelter and resources for people experiencing homelessness, the current need for emergency shelter services has been outpacing the Region’s capacity and it has not been able to honour its policy to never turn away those in need.
“We are running about 250 percent occupancy within our shelter system and we are turning away, not just asylum claimants, but we are turning away from the shelter system overall, a couple hundred instances a week,” Aileen Baird, Peel’s director of housing services, told councillors during the meeting.
“This is all unprecedented and really has come about really quickly over the summer months, with a number of pressures all happening at the same time.”
Many municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area are facing sharp increases in asylum claimants that exceed shelter system capacity. The City of Toronto has reported approximately 4,000 asylum claimants in their shelter system — the greatest influx of asylum claimants of any municipality in the province — and Durham is currently supporting roughly 170 claimants. York Region, the City of Hamilton, and Halton Region, among others, are in similar states.
Aileen Baird said staff are actively working on a non-hotel solution in anticipation for the winter months, noting the current strategy of housing claimants in hotels is not sustainable. But the biggest challenge, she explained, is who’s going to fund it.
“At this point it is an unfunded solution but we recognize that winter is around the corner and we need a winter strategy,” she explained, adding that staff are hearing from the federal government not to expect the numbers to let up in the coming months.
While the federal government is currently funding three hotels in Peel for refugees who arrived through irregular crossings, also known as in-land asylum claimants, it is not providing hotels for claimants who arrived in Canada as visitors and claimed asylum upon arrival, leaving Peel’s shelter system and overflow hotels overburdened as they support in-land refugee claimants who are not housed in federally funded hotels. Despite efforts from staff to secure three additional overflow hotels between May and August, and a fourth hotel as of mid-September — all at the expense of the Region — staff say the community’s needs continue to go unmet.
The Salvation Army Wilkinson Road Shelter in Brampton.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
In July, the federal government announced $212 million of additional funding through its Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP) for 2023-2024 — $97 million of which was allocated to the City of Toronto. The government has requested all other municipalities, including Peel, to submit a request for funding, with no guaranteed allocation amount. In hopes that some of their shelter costs for 2023 will be reimbursed, staff are now preparing a claim for funding from the federal program to assist with these costs, which are now $2.5 million per month. Staff are projecting these costs to be approximately $15 million for 2023.
The federal government anticipates that the arrival of inland asylum claimants will increase over the next few years. Staff note that funding under IHAP will assist with growing costs, however continued advocacy is required to appropriately fund the growing pressure.
“Every time we scale up and meet growing needs, what we find is more and more folks are arriving. So we are a part of the solution but it's very important that there be a very broad GTA region-wide solution to the problem as we move forward here,” Sean Baird told councillors.
“We’re hopeful that the application that we’ve made for federal funding will come through, but that is only for 2023. That doesn’t take us beyond the scale that we’re at now and it doesn’t carry us into 2024 anymore.”
Staff warn that if no additional funding is confirmed, supporting asylum claimants will likely drive a 2023 deficit in the Region’s supportive housing service.
Without enough investments being made by the Region, the situation has only worsened in recent years. Instead of adequately investing in housing relief, the Region has continuously looked towards upper levels of government to provide the necessary funds for new affordable units. The 2023 budget projected Peel’s Housing Supports would need to increase by 9.3 percent from $141.9 million in 2022 to $155.2 million for 2023, but based on the increasing population, it continues to fall short. This is on top of the 38 percent increase allocated to Peel in April from the provincial government in response to rising homelessness, bringing the total for 2023 to about $42.4 million — considerably less than what the Region had requested.
A spokesperson for the Region previously confirmed that as of December 2022 Peel’s centralized wait list for a subsidized unit had nearly doubled since 2019 to 28,811 households — a figure they said “may be under-reported” because of the backlog Peel Region’s Housing Services experienced last year. An updated figure for 2023 has not been provided.
Just a few weeks ago, the PC government announced it would be providing Toronto with $26.4 million to provide urgent assistance to asylum-seekers as part of a $42 million fund to support communities across the province. According to the province, the money will flow through the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB) program. The dollars are meant to help move more people into housing, freeing up existing shelter spaces. Of the $42 million announced, the province has said the Region of Peel will receive $2.1 million — significantly less than Toronto’s portion.
“It's odd that these asylum seekers are being treated the way they are in, sort of in ‘no man’s land’ in funding which is fundamentally unfair to them. We’ve welcomed them here and now we’re making them sleep in encampments and church basements, so we really need to press the federal and the provincial government to step up and assist us,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said, adding the Region isn’t equipped to handle this surge, leaving Peel “in a state of emergency”.
The staff report acknowledges the need for a long-term sustainable program, stating “Increased demand for housing, settlement, social and health supports for refugee claimants is expected for the foreseeable future. Peel’s emergency shelter system was not designed to provide emergency shelter to international residents fleeing from war, violence, and other forms of persecution. A more appropriate, sustainable, and trauma-informed program is required, separate and apart from the shelter system to better meet the needs of this growing population.”
The report adds, “Staff will work with local agencies and stakeholders to co-design a sustainable model, while continuing to advocate to the federal and provincial governments for the funding required to operate a long-term sustainable response.”
Regional staff have been studying modular-style housing units as a means to provide emergency housing as Peel’s shelter system faces unprecedented barriers. The Region of Durham implemented a modular housing project (above) in Oshawa in 2021.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Region is also studying modular-style housing units as a means to provide emergency housing for vulnerable residents facing unprecedented barriers within Peel’s shelter system. Mississauga Councillor Joe Horneck, who initially proposed the motion alongside Councillor Alvin Tedjo, recognizes modular housing is only a rapid way to address the issue of homelessness in the Region, and that is not a permanent fix to the problem.
Council approved a motion requesting that staff prepare a letter requesting immediate help for the asylum seekers from the federal and provincial governments. Staff note another report will be presented to Regional council on October 12 with more information about the cost pressures within Peel’s shelter system and the state of homelessness in the Region, which will include “recommendations necessary to obtain procurement authority into 2024 for this response.” Staff will also bring a report back to council once the IHAP application is complete.
Sean Baird has repeatedly assured council that the Region continues to be the only municipality within the GTA that has a “no turn away policy” — an approach that forces the Region to find other options to house individuals when shelter exceeds 100 percent capacity. But that policy was broken in July as a result of the current crisis when Baird informed council that over 300 people had to be turned away in the span of two weeks as a result of hitting capacity and running out of room in overflow spaces in local hotels.
“The reality is this is a totally unprecedented situation for us and we continue to be the only region within the GTA that continues to have a no turn away policy,” he told councillors on September 14.
“That may sound flipped because we’re turning away people right now but it's not for not trying. It's a complete lack of capacity. We simply cannot lay our hands on a room to put someone in.”
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