A Toronto church that opened its doors to hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who were unable to access the city's shelter system is calling for more help from all levels of government with the space that was used for newcomers now needed for other programs with school just around the corner.
At its peak intake levels earlier in the summer, Revivaltime Tabernacle Church in the Downsview neighbourhood provided beds to 230 people who were previously sleeping on downtown city sidewalks outside an intake shelter.
Now, pastor Judith James says the church can no longer offer the space, as it will be used for children with the new school year set to begin next week.
"We always had an end date of August because we have an elementary school that begins in September," James said.
"Although we started this in July, we started thinking that the government, all three tiers of government, would have stepped in a lot sooner. They didn't."
The church is one of three in north Toronto that has been housing Black refugees and asylum seekers since July. The problem made headlines when newcomers were barred from the city's overburdened shelter system, leaving them with nowhere to go.
Some people staying at the church have been able to access hotel rooms and city shelter with the help of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), but James says many are now looking for a place to stay once more.
"The two other churches, Dominion Church and Pilgrim Feast Church had hundreds at their door yesterday, so it's heartbreaking," she said Friday.
Beds lined up at Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, one of three Toronto churches that opened its doors to asylum seekers. (Oliver Walters/CBC)
Last week, Mayor Olivia Chow said the city has provided three churches with $50,000 to help offset costs of housing refugees.
Still a 'crisis situation'
James says after her church stepped in to provide temporary shelter, she noticed less urgency from all levels of government to look for a long-term solution, adding that organizations like hers should not have to carry all the weight.
"What we came to realize is that the [city] no longer viewed it as an emergency crisis — and as an organization and as a church, we felt like we took off the responsibility of the government. You know, kind of out of sight, out of mind," she said.
"So we had to make sure that they understood that this is still very much a crisis situation."
In July, the federal government announced it was providing a one-time injection of about $212 million into the Interim Housing Assistance Program, with $97 million earmarked for Toronto. This allowed the city to open up more beds, though officials cautioned it would not be enough, long term.
In a statement to CBC Toronto Sunday, a spokesperson for Immigration Canada said in order to address the "global migration crisis," full engagement from every level of government is needed.
Asylum seekers from Africa and other locales are photographed outside of a shelter intake office at Peter and Richmond streets in Toronto back in July. (Alex Lupul/CBC)
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker and organizer with the advocacy group Shelter and Housing Justice Network, says refugees are now being turned away from the city's shelter system once again.
"The reality is refugees are still being denied access to a shelter bed, right now the wait for refugee beds is several weeks," Lam told CBC Toronto. "It sounds like nothing has actually changed since early July."
Lam says churches and other faith-based organizations were not "equipped" to be temporarily transformed into shelters in the first place.
"When the churches opened their spaces it was a very generous offer, but a lot of us also had questions. How sustainable is this and what is the long-term plan here?"
250 emergency spaces full, city says
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto told CBC Toronto that all 250 emergency spaces the city recently opened for refugees are currently full.
"We welcome these individuals here but they're being welcomed unfortunately without the full, robust plan of available housing and this this is part of of the challenge," Lindsay Broadhead said.
"There's an order, a queue if you will, unfortunately, but the the conditions of that queue need to be followed in order to provide equity ... but also to ensure that the right spaces are available."
Broadhead said in addition to the 250 emergency spaces that were added, 80 people have volunteered space to house refugees through the city's DonateTO program.
But Lam says time is running out as colder months approach and is calling on the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) to act urgently.
"The fact that SSHA and the city continues to make this designation between what beds are for refugees and who can access them is the crux of the problem," Lam said.