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Report From Seaton House: Outside Toronto’s Largest Homeless Shelter

Toronto’s temperature plummeted from mild, above-freezing temperatures throughout the first three days of the week to a damp, bitter minus 11 degrees Celcius by Thursday evening as a steady stream of homeless Torontonians filed into the city’s largest homeless shelter, filling its capacity of over 600 beds.

Seaton House, located on 339 George Street — just blocks away from the old Maple Leafs Garden and Eaton Centre — was supposed to be shuttered back in 2017, but has had its life prolonged due to a lack of funds to replace its beds elsewhere and a growing demand for shelter from those without homes.

“I just got converted to refugee [claimant status] a few months ago,” says one middle-aged man staying at Seaton House in a wheelchair who came from Africa (he wouldn’t tell me which country he’s from) and entered Canada through Roxham Road. “I’m working with my social worker in getting an apartment… We just started with the apartment searching, so very soon we should be able to get something.”

“I’m getting a lot of help from the Canadian government,” he says, as well as support from the provincial government’s Ontario Disability Support Program. “Canada is a very good place, I’m feeling good here.”

“It’s the way people are doing [it], a lot of people are doing it so I just have to follow the way,” said the man about how he decided to come to Canada through Roxham Road.

“I had a cane to come here. When I got here I never knew there was something like a chair to move around… I was able to get an [electric] wheelchair from the government.”  

Most of the new demand on Toronto’s shelter system has come from people irregularly (i.e. illegally) entering the country at much higher rates over the past two years.   

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Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted out an invitation in early 2017 to the world’s estimated 65 million displaced people “fleeing persecution, terror & war” and hundreds of millions of others in abject poverty, the number of people illegally and legally entering Canada to claim refugee status has shot upfrom a total of 23,875 in 2016, to 50,390 in 2017, to 51,165 in the first 11 months of last year (December’s number has yet to be released).

Of course, US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and restricting of legal immigration have been contributing factors to the influx into Canada from the border, but there are also thousands of Nigerians flying to America on visitor visas each month, with many of them then proceeding to enter Canada at the unofficial entry point at Quebec’s Roxham Road to claim refugee status. From there, with the help of the Trudeau government, many are relocating to Toronto because they know some English, not French.  

In Nigeria, there is real danger for many citizens from the ongoing decade-long conflict between the government and the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. But there is also undoubtedly a subset of those seeking refugee status in Canada that are less drawn to Canada by fears for their lives than for economic and health reasons.

Hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board last year showed only slightly more than half of those illegally entering Canada are deemed legitimate refugees, but it’s taking an average of nearly two years for their backlogged cases to be heard. Only one in every 200 rejected claimants were being deported back in 2017 according to the Globe and MailThe Canadian Press revealed this week that IRB employees believe the agency is woefully underfunded to process  the surging number of claimants.

Provinces and cities affected by the influx of tens of thousands of additional asylum seekers annually have complained that the Trudeau government is offloading the hundreds of millions of dollars in added costs onto them.

Back at Seaton House at dusk on Thursday, there is small group of loud local individuals across the street who appear to be high on drugs, staying at a respite facility (a temporary shelter) directly across from Seaton House. That facility opened a year ago after the province offered the former youth detention centre to the city to help alleviate the then overwhelmed shelter system from the first major influx of refugee claimants.

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Fresh vomit is splattered on the sidewalk next to where I’m interviewing another homeless man. Most arrive at one of the two facilities by foot, but several cabs arrive in the two hours I’m there to drop off individuals staying at the shelters. Others that appear to be refugees decline to speak with a journalist.   

“Even with the security there, or whatever, and still people try to come around and sell fentanyl… and [people are] smoking crystal meth,” says Khalid Shait, 50, who immigrated to Canada in 1990 from Pakistan. He has been staying at Seaton House since December 12 and says he’s been off fentanyl for three weeks.

“A lot of people I think [are migrants]. They’ve got refugee status … and some of them have deportation orders on them,” he says.

“On this side [points to the left side of the building], there aren’t many migrants, they’re usually ex-cons, drunks, and drug addicts. But on the other side, in principle, it’s supposed to be for refugees,” says another homeless man who has been living at Seaton for the past six months. He says the facility is “consistently” full.

A Seaton House employee in a phone call later that evening confirmed that the homeless shelter was at maximum capacity, and usually is, but would not disclose how many people had been turned away to find shelter elsewhere.

“This is the fifth straight year the City has increased the number of spaces available at 24-hour respite sites,” said Shelter, Support and Housing Administration spokesperson Greg Seraganian. “Currently, there are 805 spaces across nine 24-hour respite sites, with more available as contingency space.  Although the shelter system is operating at high occupancy, we are confident we will have sufficient spaces for all who need them this winter.”

“As of January 9, 2019, almost 40 per cent of all shelter users in the City’s system were refugee/asylum claimants.”

Sereganian also said there are “approximately 18 to 20 new refugee/asylum claimants entering the shelter system each day.”

Last fall, the City of Toronto proactively bought 3 portable respite facilities in anticipation of another year of increased demand. The City was also looking to buy a hotel to house refugees.

The Trump administration still intends to deport over 300,000 people currently living in the US under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, the bulk of them are set to be deported in 2019. 46,000 Haitians are set to lose their TPS status on July 22 (Canada likewise suspended a similar program for Haitians in 2016) and 195,000 El Salvadorians are set to lose theirs on September 9.

Some experts, such as Calgary-based immigration lawyer Raj Sharma, believe that this could potentially lead to an even bigger spike in asylum seekers coming to Canada this year, which would only further exhaust the resources of the shelter system in Toronto.  

Repeated polls show a majority of Canadians believe their country is too generous to newcomers. If the influx rapidly increases at the same time the Trudeau government does nothing to close the loophole on so-called irregular immigration, all while an even bigger spike in refugee claimants appears inevitable, illegal border crossings could become a defining issue in the 2019 federal election. 

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