Ottawa

Mayor seeks federal funding to house asylum seekers

Mark Sutcliffe says the number of new Canadians using one temporary shelter is "fascinating" and it has him calling on the federal government to better fund housing for asylum seekers in Ottawa.

Mark Sutcliffe says recent tour of temporary shelter was 'fascinating'

A mayor speaks to reporters at City Hall.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says the city lacks the resources to keep up with the demand for housing from asylum seekers. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is calling on the federal government to fund housing for asylum seekers in his city, claiming the majority of people in the shelter system are newcomers to Canada. 

Sutcliffe said in a recent social media video he toured a temporary shelter where "100 per cent of the clients … are individuals who are seeking asylum." 

In an interview with CBC, the mayor clarified that he visited the makeshift shelter at the Heron Road Community Centre two weeks ago and found the amount of new arrivals relying on the shelter "fascinating."

"I think for a lot of Ottawa residents, when they hear that our shelters are overflowing, they assume it's because of people who are suffering from mental illness [or] experiencing a substance use disorder," he said.

"That's only part of the story. A big part of the story is the fact that there are so many people arriving in Ottawa seeking asylum, seeking refuge."

While the city has helped find housing for close to 700 people in the last seven months, more resources are needed, he said.

The mayor's words suggest there's been a "big change in the composition of the homeless population in Ottawa," said Tim Aubry, a professor in the school of psychology at the University of Ottawa and co-chair of the Canadian Housing First Network. 

According to a survey of the city's homeless population in 2021, 20 per cent of respondents identified coming to Canada as an immigrant, refugee, or refugee claimant.

Among that group, seven per cent said they'd been in Canada for less than a year.

"Between 2021 and today, that's a big change if we've gone from 20 per cent to over 50 per cent," Aubry said. 

More than 3,400 people spent at least one night in a temporary emergency shelter in Ottawa in December 2023, the most recent month with city data available. That's the highest number in the last decade.

The city told CBC over the long weekend it would be at least Tuesday before it could provide the number of asylum seekers currently in the emergency system.

'The mayor's right'

The CEO of The Ottawa Mission said the mayor's words reflect his daily reality.

While refugees and asylum seekers once made up a small percentage of residents at the downtown shelter, said Peter Tilley, in the past three years their numbers have skyrocketed.

The CEO of a housing service centre gives an interview.
"We have a clean facility ... we have shelter for those who have come to this country. But it's not what the Canadian dream was, to be staying at a downtown shelter in Ottawa," said Peter Tilley, CEO of The Ottawa Mission. (Laura Osman/CBC )

Nearly three in four residents at that service hub were newcomers last October, Tilley said. That has since dropped to around 40 per cent.

The city, Tilley said, has offered resources to newcomers who show up without support or information on where to go. 

"They provided us with an extra caseworker … to meet with the number of refugees coming in our door and try and move them into better shelter accommodations," he said.

The opening of temporary emergency shelters has also relieved some of the pressure, Tilley added, allowing the mission to focus on supporting people facing mental health or addictions issues or who've been evicted from their homes.

The entrance of a city's downtown shelter.
Tilley says the downtown service hub has seen an influx of refugee claimants and asylum seekers in the last three years. Canada processed more than 140,000 applications from asylum seekers last year, up from 91,735 in 2022 and 24,900 in 2021.  (Anne-Charlotte Carignan/Radio-Canada)

"These people who are coming into Canada were promised safety from war … that's normally a federal issue," he said. 

"The mayor's right. We need the federal government to step forward and help alleviate this burden, these costs that we're facing."

Seeking long-term housing solutions

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller recently said the federal government would pledge $362 million to help provinces and cities manage the refugee housing crisis.

While no funding under the Interim Housing Assistance Program has been announced yet for Ottawa, the city did get more than $26 million under the program between 2017 and 2022.

Sutcliffe said he's optimistic more money will come through.

"We've had conversations with the minister going back some time about the growing demands on our system and we're hopeful that Ottawa will receive our fair share of this funding," he said. 

The minister did not respond to an interview request by CBC's deadline. 

While Sutcliffe did not specify how much money he'd like from the program, he said he's interested in working with other levels of government to craft long-term solutions to the shelter crisis.

One solution could be a welcoming centre for newcomers that would help them with housing, education, job searching and other supports, he said.

"We want to have all those resources assembled in one place and welcome people appropriately as they arrive in our city," Sutcliffe said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anchal Sharma is a journalist at CBC Ottawa. Send her an email at anchal.sharma@cbc.ca

With files from Radio-Canada's Anne-Charlotte Carignan

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