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Influx of asylum claimants flooding shelters, social services in Ottawa

OTTAWA — Femi Biobaku came to Canada more than a year ago fleeing persecution from the Nigerian authorities, forcing him to leave his wife, two children, community and job as an accountant back home.
An influx of asylum claimants has flooded homeless shelters, temporary housing and social services in Ottawa. The Confederation building is pictured from the roof of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Femi Biobaku came to Canada more than a year ago fleeing persecution from the Nigerian authorities, forcing him to leave his wife, two children, community and job as an accountant back home. 

He landed in Ottawa in July 2022 and stayed with a host family for nearly a month before moving into a dorm at the Ottawa Mission homeless shelter, where things took a turn for the worse. 

"It was horrible. When I was there, I was being attacked," said Biobaku. 

After leaving Nigeria, the newcomer said, living at the shelter for about a month re-traumatized him, leading him to consider suicide. 

He credits a referral to Ottawa's Matthew House — a non-profit organization that provides transitional housing to refugees — for saving his life. 

"The first day I landed at Matthew House … that night, it was like I was in my home back in Nigeria," said Biobaku. 

He said Matthew House, along with providing food and shelter, helped him get his life in Canada on track with therapy and other support services. 

And after receiving his work permit, Biobaku has been employed by Matthew House's furniture bank — a program that helps newcomers and low-income families in Ottawa furnish their homes. 

Biobaku is just one of nearly 92,000 asylum claimants who fled to Canada in 2022, and around 70,000 more have arrived since, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 

It has led to an influx of unsponsored refugee claimants that have flooded homeless shelters, temporary housing and social services in several Canadian cities, most notably in Toronto, and now in Ottawa. 

Allan Reesor-McDowell, executive director of Matthew House, said all 13 of its reception and transitional homes are at full capacity, which combined typically provide beds for over 90 people. 

Before the pandemic, Reesor-McDowell said, refugees would stay in these homes for three to four months before moving to more permanent housing, but now it's around six months. 

He said this is because, simply put, "it's harder to find housing." 

The refugee crisis has escalated for a decade, long neglected by the Canadian government, he said.  

"This is not a new thing at all," said Reesor-McDowell.  

"If you don't address something that's staring you in the face for years, eventually it catches up to you."

Reesor-McDowell said Matthew House and 30 to 40 similar organizations across Canada are the best option for helping unsponsored refugees when they first arrive and permanently diverting homelessness. 

That process includes finding newcomers legal aid, securing a work permit and a job, then transitioning them into permanent housing and independence, he said. 

The number of refugee claimants coming to Canada is not overwhelming and could be easily handled if co-ordinated services were given the resources to expand, he added. 

"It's not that complicated, we already know what to do," said Reesor McDowell. "We have programs that are super effective (and) low-cost. We just need more of that capacity across the country and then it's not a problem."

The city provides Matthew House with $270,000 annually, which goes toward staffing, but operational costs are supported through fundraising and grants, Reesor-McDowell said.

He added that while Matthew House has received municipal support, the federal government's response has been lacklustre. 

Last month, the federal government announced $210 million in funding toward temporary housing for refugee claimants, with nearly half pledged to get asylum seekers in Toronto off the streets. 

Reesor-McDowell said that instead of contributing to programs that welcome and support asylum seekers, the feds have invested in temporary and less cost-effective options such as hotels.

However, at least one Ottawa city councillor sees a place for hotels in the mix of short-term solutions.

Several community centres in the national capital were repurposed during the pandemic to provide housing when shelters were full. 

Though that was supposed to be a temporary solution, demand has forced the city to leave some open. 

Right now, two are still being used as shelters and both are at maximum capacity, including one in Ottawa Coun. Stéphanie Plante's Rideau-Vanier ward. 

Plante worries that using recreation centres in low-income areas is taking away an important community resource from children. 

"It just seems like we're being put in a position where, you know, we're putting vulnerable people, on top of vulnerable people, on top of vulnerable people, and they're kind of competing for the limited resources in these areas," she said. 

An alternative to using the community centres as temporary housing, Plante said, is relocating refugees to hotels, motels and Airbnb's across the city until longer-term solutions are found. 

"We have hotels in Kanata, in Orleans, in Barrhaven. We could be putting people in all parts of the city if we really wanted to give those rec centres back to kids," she said. 

As for the long-term solutions, Plante feels the answer is not letting bureaucracy get in the way and finding creative fixes to the housing problem.

Plante mentioned turning vacant government offices into residences and offering incentives to developers who build on brownfields, spaces where former factories or other operations might have contaminated the soil.

"I want to see cranes in the sky. I want to see work boots," she said. "I want to see hammering away. Like, I just want to build.". 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2023. 

Liam Fox, The Canadian Press