$7M of taxpayer money will add significant shelter capacity when new Pearson Airport centre is ready to support asylum seekers
Following several pleas from Peel’s elected officials for more funding to address the Region’s overburdened shelter systems, the federal government has made a commitment to send tax dollars back to the region, which welcomes large numbers of newcomers every year.
Ottawa announced last week that $7 million for a new reception centre near Pearson International Airport will be allocated to the Region of Peel for more streamlined services and supports to help asylum claimants as they arrive, including additional shelter space as Peel’s emergency housing systems can not accommodate the increasing need.
Solutions will require “collaboration and engagement from all levels of government,” federal officials said.
The federal Liberals acknowledged that more needs to be done to help newcomers, including those seeking asylum, under the government’s current immigration and refugee policies. Their safety, especially as winter nears, has to be a priority and Liberal politicians, especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have faced mounting frustration from the public and municipal officials demanding more taxpayer dollars be allocated to the cities and regions where resources to help newcomers are needed most.
The announcement comes after an asylum claimant who was staying in an encampment outside Dundas Shelter in Mississauga was found dead. A spokesperson from the Region previously told The Pointer the cause of death, which was reported on November 14, is unknown, and the matter is being investigated. Reports suggest the man may have died of carbon monoxide poisoning while attempting to keep his tent warm, however no cause of death has been confirmed. Peel Regional Police have not responded to The Pointer’s requests for an update.
The tragedy had been a fear of stakeholders for years, as Peel’s shelters have operated beyond capacity; recent reports revealed the Region’s emergency shelter systems are 321 percent over capacity, up from 247 percent at the beginning of October.
In an email, a spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed “the reception centre will be located near Toronto's Pearson International Airport, however, for privacy and safety reasons, we are unable to disclose the specific location."
“The federal government is partnering with the Region of Peel, who will be running the centre and will be providing details on services and operations,” the spokesperson said.
Work toward long-term solutions is ongoing, the spokesperson said, and the current partnership on the new project “will benefit municipalities across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and comes after consultations with mayors and key stakeholders in the region.”
The Region of Peel could not confirm how many shelter spaces will be added, and a spokesperson said many of the operational details are “confidential for now.”
Mississauga Acting Mayor Chris Fonseca sent a letter to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) following the death of the asylum claimant who was found in a tent outside a shelter in the city. She requested the federal government provide emergency funding to house the hundreds of people sleeping in Peel encampments, calling it “a humanitarian emergency,” and “simply unacceptable.”
A surge in asylum claimants has resulted in hundreds of people sleeping outside and setting up encampments next to the Dundas Shelter in Mississauga as they wait for space or overflow beds to open. The Pointer previously reported there are approximately 102 asylum claimants living unsheltered outside Mississauga’s Dundas Street shelter waiting to get inside as the temperature continues to drop with winter nearing. That number has since increased to nearly 150 people, according to reports from the Region which has reported 128 known encampments where small numbers of people are sheltering in close proximity this year, a 167 percent increase from 2022.
According to previous reports from the Region, asylum claimants have historically accounted for approximately five percent of Peel’s shelter population but a September update to regional councillors revealed they accounted for approximately 57 percent of shelter occupants. Since September, that number has increased to 66 percent — “levels never before experienced in Peel,” staff noted, with 5 of the Region’s 10 overflow hotels now specifically dedicated for asylum claimants. Earlier this year, a regional staff report revealed the number of contracts between private hotel operators has increased 113 percent.
The Region’s spokesperson previously confirmed there are currently 249 asylum-claimant households staying in emergency shelters, 755 staying in overflow hotels and 187 asylum-claimant individuals sleeping outside the Dundas shelter — a drastic increase from the 16 camped outdoors that were reported at the end of August. Since the beginning of October, 120 asylum claimants have been housed. Previous predictions anticipate that this year alone, Ontario could receive more than 72,000 asylum claimants — nearly twice as many as last year.
Shelter overflow costs for 2023 are currently estimated at $26.9 million, with approximately $15 million for asylum claimants.
Last week’s funding announcement by the federal government underscores the need to align immigration policies with the reality on the ground; the recent death was the latest, tragic, reminder of how bad the emergency housing crisis is. For nearly a decade, the Region of Peel has been funding its emergency shelter system under the narrative of managing homelessness, with little being done to prevent it. With the lack of capacity, local shelter needs are now competing with the need to help newcomers arriving in Canada without a place to stay.
“Reducing homelessness and not just managing it requires more investment in homelessness prevention, and in permanent housing solutions,” Aileen Baird, director of housing services at the Region of Peel, told councillors in October.
Fonseca’s letter to the federal government notes the Region is currently spending approximately $3.5 million a month on overflow accommodations in hotels to support the wave of refugees arriving in Peel in recent months, a cost that is currently unbudgeted and escalating. This temporary solution is not sustainable, her letter warned, with shelter overflow costs for 2024 anticipated to reach approximately $42 million, at a minimum, an alarming increase from just four years ago when Peel paid approximately $2.5 million for overflow hotel rooms. Her letter details an additional $25 million in the Region’s 2024 budget for housing support.
“It's important to note that Peel Region has heavily invested in helping those in need of secure affordable housing and shelter,” her letter states. “Only 24% of our operating revenues for emergency housing flow from provincial and federal transfers, the rest is covered by Peel Region property taxpayers.”
Acting Mississauga Mayor Chris Fonseca says while the Region is trying to manage its overburdened shelter system, it needs to do better. She sent a list of requests to the federal government detailing badly needed funding to support asylum claimants and others who cannot be housed in Peel’s badly overburdened emergency shelter system.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Elected officials have repeatedly failed to adequately invest in local shelter spaces and affordable housing units. Despite the responsibility of housing falling to the municipality, the Region has repeatedly placed the onus on upper levels of government to provide the funds to help those in need of housing assistance while failing to invest local tax dollars. This lack of investment by Peel councillors continued despite repeated calls from advocacy groups who have highlighted the crisis in Peel.
“We’re doing all that we can, as a regional government, and then as a city government,” Fonseca told The Pointer prior to the federal funding announcement. “Yes, our shelter occupancy right now is over 320 percent. So on the one hand, I wouldn’t use the word failure, I would say that the current model is not equipped to address all of the various needs.”
“But the system does not service all of the needs. The needs have changed from what they were even five years ago to now and that is why the system itself needs to change,” she added. “What we’re seeing now is yeah, it is a crisis, it is. And we need to face that crisis. We’re beyond the tipping point. We need to be doing a better job.”
In an email statement to The Pointer, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in order to help alleviate some local pressure, IRCC has been transferring asylum claimants from municipal shelters to IRCC-funded hotels in various Ontario cities and regions. The spokesperson noted that as of November 17, IRCC has provided accommodations to almost 400 asylum claimants previously in Peel Region shelters.
“There is no simple answer but we are confident that, with full engagement from all levels of government, we can implement real long-term, sustainable, and compassionate measures,” the spokesperson said.
As the federal government and the Region of Peel band together to address the crisis, earlier this month Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford called out the federal government for using its Housing Accelerator Fund to help municipalities create affordable housing, calling the move “a jurisdictional creep” while his PC government has ignored the types of housing Ontarians desperately need.
The City of Mississauga has been working with the federal government to secure $120 million in funding to help with its provincial target of 120,000 homes as part of the 1.5 million units the PCs want built across Ontario by 2031. The City was informed it would not be receiving the funding after Mississauga City Council voted to prevent fourplexes from being built within city limits. The decision was later reversed by Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie through her strong mayor powers (granted by the PCs) with the hope that the federal government will reconsider the City’s application for funding, which it signalled will likely be the case thanks to Crombie’s bold move.
“The call upon all of us to collaborate and work together is something that, right now, is of utmost urgency,” Fonseca stressed. “Really, we should not be in silos. We need to all be working together, whether it's immigration, whether it's housing, whether it's at the municipal, regional, provincial, or federal [levels.]”
The Region’s shelter capacity has soared in recent months with the influx of asylum seekers, putting Peel’s emergency shelter systems at 320 percent of capacity.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Regional councillors have failed to allocate adequate funding toward affordable housing and the shelter system for more than a decade, making the current crisis worse.
“We've had discussions about it over a number of years,” Fonseca said, “and what we're seeing right now is a crisis as far as addressing the many needs when it comes to housing, whether it is transitional housing, supportive housing, community housing…or housing for those that are the most vulnerable in our community, and that includes housing for those that are coming to our country as asylum claimants, or refugees or newcomers, and we need to do be doing a better job.”
“It's multifaceted, and it's all hands on deck. One order of government can't say, ‘well, it's your responsibility,’ and then the other order says, ‘No, it's your responsibility,” she explained. “On the ground, the reality is it's just tragic that people are sleeping on the street. It's just not acceptable. We can do better.”
Regional councillors have for years ignored calls from advocates and residents who have pleaded to council to increase Peel’s affordable housing and shelter budget. The Region’s elected officials passed the 2022 budget without any of the increases advocates called for to combat the dire situation, which has grown even worse since.
A 2021 report from Peel Alliance to End Homelessness (PAEH) stated “the time to act is now,” highlighting that, “Based on Peel’s 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan, it is estimated that 70% of households earning under $60,000 are at risk of becoming homeless. Peel’s shelter data for 2020 indicated 11% of people staying in shelter are chronically homeless, while during Peel’s 2018 point in time count, 32% were chronic."
The report identified Peel’s chronic homelessness rates were likely to increase without additional targeted housing investments. In 2021 the report estimated that, in order to reduce chronic homelessness by 15 percent, Peel’s average move-in rate would need to increase to at least seven move-ins per month. At the time, the average sat at four move-ins per month; which meant an additional three permanent housing units (and individualized supports if needed) would be required per month — equating to a minimum of 84 additional units and supports over the next year.
“When emergency shelters reach capacity, the first reaction is to increase the number of shelter beds. This may be necessary, particularly to respond to immediate demand, however, increasing the number of beds alone will not solve the issue.”
Peel’s housing investment of approximately $141.9 million for 2022 failed to shrink the waitlist for housing assistance, with 30,000 households on the list at the time, a number that had doubled in less than three years, while elected officials continued to ignore the growing crisis.
PAEH estimates about 90,000 people in Peel are in need of core housing, meaning their current living situation is either unsafe or far beyond affordability, with approximately 73,710 households in precarious housing situations. Its study also found that 14,977 people are at risk of becoming homeless, 2,804 people need transitional housing and about 700 are chronically homeless each year. Since those estimates, the number of households waiting for assistance has doubled.
Years of inadequate investments into Peel’s housing file at the hands of the Region’s elected officials have left the upper-tier municipality in a dire housing crisis.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
At the start of this year, Peel budgeted $4 million for shelter overflow space (along with $19.3 million for the whole shelter system). This was projected to meet only 75 percent of the actual need in Peel.
In hopes that some of the shelter costs for 2023 will be reimbursed, staff prepared a proposal earlier this year for federal funding under the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP) for 2023-2024. In September, the Region of Peel requested an update on its $19.3 million IHAP application. In November, as the situation only continued to worsen outside Peel’s shelters, the Region passed a motion, tabled by Fonseca, urging the federal government to flow this funding immediately.
The letter also urged the federal government, in partnership with the province, to match funds through the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit, noting that “to match the reality on the ground, [Peel] need[s] at least $10 million in a streamlined housing subsidy, and ask the [Peel’s] provincial and federal partners work with [the Region] to meet the rising demand.”
Staff have warned that if no additional funding is confirmed, shelter overflow costs could drive a deficit in 2023 for Peel’s supportive housing service.
Fonseca put forward a motion at Regional Council in October, requesting members call on the federal government for immediate assistance for asylum claimants through the IHAP funding allocation of at least $15 million to recoup costs for 2023 and up to $42 million for 2024; and that the federal government, at a minimum, match the province’s contribution of $2.11 million announced for Peel through the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit in September.
The October motion requested the federal government create a dedicated support program for In-Land and Point of Entry asylum claimants, as well as a Dedicated Asylum Claimant Program, to prevent homelessness among asylum seekers and the need to rely on the severely constrained and already underfunded emergency shelter and community housing systems programs in Peel.
It also encouraged that the federal government work with Peel, its lower-tier municipalities and the province of Ontario and other partners to establish an Intergovernmental Strategy that would outline roles and responsibilities “to support and care for [the] most vulnerable and those who come to Canada for a safe and better life.”
Fonseca’s letter to the federal government noted Peel is no longer able to keep up with its long-standing "no turn away" policy,” adding, “Our shelter system is not designed to support refugees and asylum seekers from a capacity perspective, but also in terms of wrap-around supports and services.”
Peel’s precarious housing crisis forced the Region to break its “no turn away policy” earlier this year when Sean Baird, Peel’s Commissioner of Human Services, told Council in July more than 300 people had to be turned away due to over-capacity and no more overflow space in local hotels. In September, he stood before councillors again and revealed the Region was turning away more than a couple hundred people from the shelter system a week, many of whom then turned to camping 20-feet outside the door of the same shelter.
Fonseca recognizes the Region’s current model of putting people up in hotels and motels is a Band-Aid response, that isn’t even working.
She recommends looking for a commercial space to alleviate and take some pressure off not only Peel’s shelter systems, but also off the hotels and motels the Region partners with.
“There's the immediate emergency of getting everyone that is out in the cold into a safe and warm shelter, and then there is the longer term strategy to collaborate and work together to find permanent housing within communities for everyone.”
“We're recognizing that is very cold and as we go into the winter, we don't want anyone to be sleeping out on the street,” Fonseca said. “We need to ensure that… all orders of government collaborate together to ensure that no one is sleeping out on the street.”
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