Failed by Governments Refugees Find Shelter in Churches  

A month ago, refugees sleeping rough in downtown Toronto found themselves being bused and relocated to Revivaltime Tabernacle Church in North York. With no beds available in the already stretched Toronto shelter system, the church set up support for over 50 people in their basement. Another church soon joined to take the overflow. The refugees, who had hoped for a warmer welcome to Canada, were able to have showers for the first time in days.

The stunning generosity of the churches, volunteers and Black-led social agencies meant asylum seekers were fed, clothed and looked after while governments argued about who was responsible and Toronto lobbied the federal government for funds. A few days later, a shamed federal government pledged $97 million, but the city said this was still not enough. Toronto’s mayor had announced plans to offer a variety of housing solutions, but nothing that could’ve eased those harsh days sleeping in doorways and on stairs for hundreds of people.

Revivalism’s Pastor Judith James showed remarkable dedication  to the refugees, most of whom are from Africa: “We are going to ensure that our people see that even when Canada turns their back on them, our community will always fight.” She was moved by the way poor people looking for a new life were treated.

Her shock continues; now that Black activists and volunteers have taken the refugees off the street and out of sight, the government appears to think the issue is solved. It is not. “The Church stepped in because the state checked out,” Pastor James says.

So, while volunteers continue to cook and look after the refugees, the city has recently issued $50,000 each to Revivaltime Tabernacle, Dominion Church and Pilgrims Feast Tabernacle. These funds will assist with urgent needs. In addition, six city staff have been deployed to support Revivaltime and Dominion. Too little too late?

I find the federal government’s apparent indifference to the real need of newcomers shameful and the actions of the church community a powerful example of faith in action. But as James insists, they should not have to do what is essentially the government’s job.

The city wants the feds to set up a federally operated reception centre to receive refugees when they arrive so they can access services and housing right away. There is no commitment yet from Ottawa to provide this obvious solution. And the city still has been unable to access the promised $97 million.

This untenable situation is now the sharp end of the endlessly debated housing crisis. There are 3,330 refugees in Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system of the 10,181 total homeless served. The $5.8 million housing deficit enumerated by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation somehow seems disconnected from the homeless. All people want is a room with a door that locks. Charities, not developers, have been trying to humanize the face of homelessness for decades. Now we have churches saving hundreds of people we have allegedly welcomed to Canada but relegated to camping on the street. We need to do better.

Hundreds of people were sheltering in these churches at the very moment Justin Trudeau told his cabinet that his government was taking the housing crisis very seriously and there was no silver bullet. How serious could he have been?

Tommy Douglas once said: “We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us.” Indeed.

Canada will be judged not by how many houses we build for the middle class but by whether or not we can house and provide for the neediest – those with no homes at all. This is a moral and a social imperative for our biggest cities, one that was answered by church members in Toronto but must be answered by higher levels of government.

Photo: via sabrinalavelle