As Ottawa scrambles to support municipalities helping asylum seekers dollar amount for Peel still uncertain
The federal government has announced another pool of funding to support the influx of asylum claimants arriving in the country as global conflicts continue, but it remains unclear how much of that taxpayer money will come back to Peel, where the emergency shelter system is already chronically over capacity.
The sight of refugees outside hotels and motels in Mississauga and Brampton has become common, as the regional government struggles to find new spaces to house more and more people in desperate need of temporary accommodation.
On Wednesday the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), announced an additional $362.4 million in funding would be trickled down to municipalities dealing with the rising number of refugees being welcomed into the country to escape conflicts in their homeland. The announcement came as part of the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP) for the 2023–2024 fiscal year. Through it, the federal government provides funding to lower-tier governments on a cost-sharing basis, “to address extraordinary interim housing pressures resulting from increased volumes of asylum claimants.”
"This program is important because it gets shelters over people's heads, particularly with the temperature that it is outside. But it needs reform, and that's something that will have to be worked on... in the coming months," Minister Marc Miller told reporters Wednesday. "I think we owe it to Canadians to reform a system that has very much been a stopgap measure since 2017 to deal with large historic flows of migration."
As of last week, approximately 7,300 asylum claimants in need of housing were staying in roughly 4,000 hotel rooms provided by the federal government in six provinces, according to the Minister.
“The funding amount was determined by the income provinces would need to have for the coming year,” he explained, adding the number “should be sufficient in the short term.” Miller said more details of funding allocations to prevent asylum claimants from experiencing homelessness will be revealed in the coming days.
Premiers and mayors have been calling for more federal support as municipalities across the provinces warn that lives are being put at risk during the winter. The only specific amount Miller committed Wednesday was $100 million for Quebec after Premier François Legault wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January warning that the growing number of asylum seekers was pushing government services to their breaking point.
Several reports from the Region of Peel throughout 2023 underscored the challenges being experienced inside its shelter system, which have also been pushed to their limits. Each report to regional councillors as the year progressed revealed the situation was only worsening as staff reported rapidly growing numbers of individuals in the system, with more and more hotel spaces being used to keep them safe.
Not everyone was saved.
The latest reports from the Region at the end of 2023 revealed Peel’s emergency shelter systems were 321 percent over capacity, up from 247 percent at the beginning of October.
Tents in the fall outside Mississauga’s Dundas Street Shelter. Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced $360 million in funding as part of the Interim Housing Assistance Program.
According to previous reports from the Region, asylum claimants have historically accounted for approximately five percent of Peel’s shelter population. However, a November update revealed they made up nearly 66 percent of shelter occupants — “levels never before experienced in Peel,” staff noted, with 5 of the Region’s 10 overflow hotels now specifically dedicated for asylum claimants. In early 2023, a regional staff report revealed the number of contracts between private hotel operators had increased 113 percent from the previous year.
On Friday, a Region of Peel spokesperson confirmed there are currently 1,300 asylum claimants staying in Peel shelters and overflow hotels. This marks a drastic increase from the previously reported 249 asylum-claimant households staying in emergency shelters, 755 staying in overflow hotels and 187 asylum-claimant individuals sleeping outside the Dundas shelter as of the end of November.
The ongoing surge in asylum claimants has resulted in hundreds of people sleeping outside and setting up encampments as they wait for space or overflow beds to open. The Pointer previously reported approximately 102 asylum claimants were living unsheltered outside Mississauga’s Dundas Street shelter waiting to get inside as the temperature continued to drop through the winter months. 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 were sheltering nearby in the final months of 2023, a 167 percent increase from 2022. No updated numbers have been provided by the Region.
The federal government anticipates that the arrival of inland asylum claimants will increase over the next few years. Previous predictions anticipated that in 2023 alone, Ontario was on track to receive more than 72,000 asylum claimants — nearly twice as many as the previous year. Region of Peel staff previously noted that funding under IHAP would assist with growing costs, however continued advocacy is required to appropriately fund the growing demand.
Chris Fonseca, who was acting Mississauga mayor at the time, sent a letter to the federal government in November, urging officials to flow more funding to the Region as its shelter systems are overwhelmed.
(The Pointer files)
A November letter from Mississauga Councillor Chris Fonseca, who was acting mayor at the time, to the federal government noted 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. The letter warned this temporary solution is not sustainable, with shelter overflow costs for 2024 anticipated to reach approximately $42 million, at a minimum. The Region has reported shelter overflow costs for 2023 were estimated at $26.9 million, with approximately $15 million for asylum claimants.
These estimates highlight an alarming increase from just four years ago when Peel paid approximately $2.5 million for overflow hotel rooms.
In an email to The Pointer, IRCC communications advisor Matthew Krupovich said the IHAP funding remains part of the cost-sharing program to provide reimbursement to provinces and municipalities for a portion of their expenses “related to the provision of interim housing for asylum claimants.” Municipalities are still required to submit requests for reimbursement for costs incurred.
“IRCC remains in regular discussions with the Region of Peel with respect to their requests, and the scope of their expenses,” Krupovich explained. He did not confirm how much of Wednesday’s funding announcement would be allocated to the Region of Peel. “We are reviewing their requests and will share details with them once they become available.”
“Given the current pressures on the shelter systems and to demonstrate our ongoing support for municipalities, the federal government has already provided $10 million to the Region of Peel as an installment toward their final 2023 IHAP claim which is still not finalized,” he told The Pointer, “including support to open a new reception centre that will provide temporary shelter and more streamlined services and supports to asylum claimants.”
In a joint statement from Ontario Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs Paul Calandra and Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development David Piccini, they said they were “disappointed” by Wednesday’s announcement.
“The funding announcement by the federal government today doesn’t cover the needs of Toronto, let alone all the other municipalities facing the same pressures due to the increased number of asylum claimants… the federal government needs to take responsibility for the crisis they created and provide the necessary funding to address it.”
Despite the Ministers’ claims that the onus falls on the federal government to pony up the funding, Wednesday’s press release from the IRCC asserted that while the federal government recognizes the need for all levels of government to work together, “housing and supports for asylum claimants are the responsibility of provinces and municipalities.”
Reports to regional council throughout 2023 highlighted the worsening crisis in Peel’s emergency shelter system, which has chronically operated over capacity.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
But as the province points the finger, regional councillors have also been criticized for failing to allocate adequate funding toward affordable housing and the shelter system for more than a decade, setting the stage for the current crisis.
Fonseca’s November letter to the federal government detailed an additional $25 million in the Region’s 2024 budget for housing support, but reports to the Region make clear that amount will not be enough to address the current situation as shelter overflow costs for the year ahead are anticipated to reach approximately $42 million. The letter noted “Peel Region has heavily invested in helping those in need of secure affordable housing and shelter,” adding that “Only 24 percent of [Peel’s] operating revenues for emergency housing flow from provincial and federal transfers, the rest is covered by Peel Region property taxpayers.”
But for nearly a decade, the Region of Peel has been funding its emergency shelter system under the presumption of merely managing homelessness, rather than looking at preventative measures. Aileen Baird, director of housing services at the Region of Peel, previously told councillors, “Reducing homelessness and not just managing it requires more investment in homelessness prevention and in permanent housing solutions.”
At the start of 2023, 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. Peel Alliance to End Homelessness estimates about 90,000 people in the region require core housing, meaning their current living situation is either unsafe or far beyond affordability, with approximately 73,710 households in precarious housing situations. A study from the organization 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.
Fonseca told The Pointer in November while the Region is trying to manage its overburdened shelter system, it needs to do better. Acknowledging that Peel’s shelter occupancy was exceeding 320 percent, she said although she “wouldn’t use the word failure, I would say that the current model is not equipped to address all of the various 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 told The Pointer. “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.”
Wednesday’s funding announcement comes in addition to the $212 million in federal funding in July through the program for 2023-2024 — $97 million of which was allocated to the City of Toronto. The government had requested all other municipalities, including Peel, submit a funding request, with no guaranteed allocation amount. In hopes that some of Peel’s shelter costs for 2023 would be reimbursed, staff prepared a claim for funding from the federal program. Amounts are determined based on those requests and the overall funding envelope of the program.
At the time, Sean Baird, Peel’s commissioner of human services, told councillors staff were hopeful the application for federal funding would come through, but cautioned it would only cover 2023. He said the funding would not take the Region beyond the scale it’s currently at and would not carry the shelter system into 2024. Staff warned that if no additional funding is confirmed, supporting asylum claimants would likely drive a 2023 deficit in the Region’s supportive housing service.
When asked by The Pointer for more information on funding received from the federal government to date following Wednesday’s announcement, a spokesperson from the Region responded, “we cannot comment or provide further information at this time.”
In addition to IHAP, the federal government has also secured temporary accommodations for short-term housing to alleviate the pressure on local shelters. These locations have been adjusted based on local needs and growing demands.
Following repeated requests from the Region, the federal government announced $7 million in funding for a new refugee reception centre, to be located near Pearson International Airport.
In November, in response to pleas from the Region, the federal government announced $7 million for a new reception centre near Pearson International Airport to provide more streamlined services and supports to help asylum claimants as they arrive. The announcement included additional shelter space.
In an email, a spokesperson from the IRCC previously 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 will partner with the Region, which will be responsible for “running the centre and providing details on services and operations.” Work toward long-term solutions is ongoing, the spokesperson said at the time.
The Region of Peel could not confirm how many shelter spaces would be added, and a spokesperson said many of the operational details are “confidential for now.”
Minister Miller cautioned that recent financial aid does not compensate for other levels of government failing to protect asylum claimants within their borders.
“This is very much an interim program. It's something we have to work with provinces to reform because getting into the business of hotels, this dates back to 2017, it is in reaction to the historic flows that we continue to see coming into Canada whether it's through land borders or through airports,” Miller said. “It's very much a very expensive stopgap measure but it's one I think has been essential in the context to keep shelters over people’s heads.”
He said the current system is "not perfect".
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