CALM BEFORE THE STORM: No end in sight for Toronto asylum seekers awaiting refuge

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All of Asuman Najib Ssali’s worldly belongings hang from a tree outside a downtown Toronto shelter.

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“This is my home now. And these are my things,” said Ssali, circling his hand on the ground around the tree.

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He fled Uganda because of government persecution and now has a hard-plastic grey suitcase, two canvas grocery bags, a blue foam bed roll, a beige jacket, his prayer mat, a large plaid floor sheet and an umbrella.

Ssali has become part of the growing mass of African people outside of the shelter, where some refugees looking for a place to stay have been camped out for over two weeks.

Various advocacy groups gathered Friday morning outside of the city facility at Richmond and Peter Sts. – which was once the pulsing heart of the “Entertainment District” – calling on all levels of government to deal with the overstretched shelter system, which has seen a high influx of refugee claimants in Toronto and surrounding regions.

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The groups said that all levels of government should be ashamed for not doing enough to help many of the asylum seekers who’ve recently arrived in the city.

Mid-afternoon Friday, a grey pickup truck rolled up to the shelter blaring African music and two men hopped in the back and started unloading a few bikes, scooters, food, water, and flinging clothing to those clamouring around it.

A grey pickup truck rolled up outside a City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. – where refugees who have come to Canada from nations like Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, have been sleeping on the street as they wait for housing – on Friday, July 14, 2023.
A grey pickup truck rolled up outside a City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. – where refugees who have come to Canada from nations like Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, have been sleeping on the street as they wait for housing – on Friday, July 14, 2023. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Toronto’s Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said back in May that the number of asylum seekers in the city’s shelter system grew by 500% in 20 months from a low of 530 per night in September 2021 to more than 2,800 throughout the month of May this year.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow issued a statement Friday afternoon about the plight of the people and the shelter system.

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“I am looking for concrete solutions for the end of the immediate crisis, as well as a longer-term action plan to provide refugees dignified shelter and housing when they arrive,” read the statement.

Chow said she wants Ottawa to cover the $157 million Toronto is spending for existing refugee shelter spaces, and support with additional housing, shelter space and personnel.

“Further, I am seeking a partnership that includes the city contributing on a significant expansion of the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit, a rent supplement program, so that we can move people into housing,” read the statement.

Asylum seekers with all of their worldly possessions continued to sleep on the street outside of the City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. as they waited for housing on Friday, July 14, 2023.
Asylum seekers with all of their worldly possessions continued to sleep on the street outside of the City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. as they waited for housing on Friday, July 14, 2023. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Back in May 2007, the City of Toronto purchased the building for $5.5 million from the owner of the trendy nightclub know as Fez Batik and converted it into a 40-bed shelter after a 21-9 vote.

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At the time, former city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said the purchase was “wasting taxpayers’ money.”

Kaddu, who has lived in Canada for 20 year and is a part of the Uganda Muslim Association Of Canada (UMAC) Community Centre on Weston Rd., said this shelter is not the only one overflowing.

She said there is one in Mississauga, in Durham Region and also Hamilton.

Asylum seekers with all of their worldly possessions continued to sleep on the street outside of the City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. as they waited for housing on Friday, July 14, 2023.
Asylum seekers with all of their worldly possessions continued to sleep on the street outside of the City of Toronto shelter on Peter St. as they waited for housing on Friday, July 14, 2023. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Diagonally across from the Peter St. shelter, one of the area’s many former nightclubs is boarded up with large “For Lease” signs plastered on the exterior walls.

One of the advocates, Rachel, a helper from the Ugandan centre, asked: “Why doesn’t the city just go to them and ask to put temporary beds in there for shelter?”

All Ssali knows is that his little umbrella and a tarp will probably not give give him shelter on the sidewalk from torrential rains and thunderstorms that are supposed to hit the GTA on Saturday.

This asylum seeker, like all of the others, will no doubt still be waiting to for refuge.

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