Group rallies for housing & shelter funding


Calls out Chrystia Freeland for unequal treatment of refugees

By Lincoln DePradine

George Wilobo (right) & Christopher Nkambwe

Activist groups and individuals, pressing for more support to meet housing needs, including for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, have petitioned federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland on the issue, while accusing her of unequal treatment in disbursing taxpayers’ money.

A list of demands, including calls to “invest in people’’ and to provide funding for a “refugee reception centre’’, was outlined at a protest titled, “Rally for Housing & Shelter Funding Now’’.

The July 28 rally, organized by “Progress Toronto’’, was held outside the Bloor Street West parliamentary office of Freeland, MP for University-Rosedale.

Organizers, in speeches and handouts distributed at the rally, urged the establishment of the welcome centre to be “co-funded by the provincial and federal governments’’; and, suggested that all levels of government “work together to address the housing crisis, so everyone has a safe place to live’’.

After rallying on the pavement, outside Freeland’s office, a group of protestors walked inside and delivered a petition of demands to a male member of her staff.

One protestor alluded to the treatment of African refugees, who were left homeless and forced to sleep on the streets of Toronto. Freeland, he charged, “picks and chooses’’ where funds are allocated, and rolls out the “red carpet’’ for some, but with no help forthcoming for “people that are from the African continent’’.

“From my vision, it’s not a complex issue. From her vision, it’s a complexion issue,’’ he said.

The group left Freeland’s office chanting, “we’ll be back’’.

Housing for the poor and vulnerable, always a challenge in big cities, was elevated to prominence after Black and Caribbean community members sprang into action to assist the homeless African refugees and asylum seekers.

As community assistance mounted, blame and responsibility were being tossed around among federal, provincial and municipal politicians.

Freeland, in response to a request from mayor Olivia Chow for a federal boost in funding for Toronto, said although the federal government is “a committed partner’’ for Toronto, “the ability of the federal government to spend is not infinite.”

The finance minister pointed to reserve funds at the city and the province as an option, and also saying that cities are an area of provincial responsibility under the constitution.

The federal government finally agreed to put up the roughly $100 million that Toronto solicited.

Speakers at last Friday’s Bloor Street rally appealed for the involvement of the federal government, as well as Ontario under Premier Doug Ford and the City of Toronto, to finding a long term solution to the housing and shelter problem.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government must do more to support refugees and asylum seekers, who number in the thousands, said Progress Toronto, which describes itself as a “non-profit organization that fights for a more just, affordable and progressive city’’.

“It’s no secret that Toronto’s housing crisis has pushed our shelter system to its brink. Recent public pressure pushed the federal government to deliver on a portion of owed funding to help meet their obligations,’’ the organization said.

According to Progress Toronto, the Trudeau administration “owes the City of Toronto $60 million to relieve additional pressures, as well as provide support to ensure the city has access to federal spaces and people have access to permanent housing. The federal government needs to step up and support refugee and asylum-seeking families, who need immediate shelter and access to affordable housing’’.

Among the numerous negative effects of lack of housing and Toronto’s shelter crisis are “anxiety, depression, drug abuse, sex trafficking, exploitation and mental health issues’’, said Christopher Nkambwe, executive director of the African Centre for Refugees in Ontario.

“We have tried, without any funding, to provide temporary shelters to our people to avoid them from spending nights on the streets,’’ he said. “We call upon all levels of government to respond to the needs of the asylum seekers.’’

Nkambwe recommends government investment to “decrease on the process time for asylum seekers’’; funding to refugee-serving organizations “to help provide temporary shelters for asylum seekers’’; and to “establish a reception centre equipped with mobile social and healthcare services’’.

The best way to eliminate the shelter problem, said Nkambwe, is for “all levels of government to value the humanitarian needs’’ of people, including homeless Canadians, who are “spending nights on the streets of Toronto and other cities, due to shelter shortage and high housing costs’’.