In 2023, Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, a Toronto faith centre, opened its doors to asylum seekers. It’s among many organizations struggling to accommodate the surge of refugees in the city.

When Asylum Seekers Have Nowhere To Go

Thousands of refugees live in shelters, hotels and on the streets of Canada’s largest cities. How the country is struggling to cope with a massive surge in global asylum seekers.
By Jordan Michael Smith Photography by Chloë Ellingson

June 24, 2024

Ann doesn’t know how old she is. She thinks she’s probably 40 or 41, but she became separated from her parents as a child, and she has no record of her birth. When she was a child she lived alone on the streets of Kampala, Uganda—one of thousands of homeless youth in the city—and survived by collecting plastic bottles and scrap to sell to recyclers. She slept outside at night, then later in a church, and attended school by day. Remarkably, after years of diligent study, she secured a high school scholarship, saved money and enrolled in university. She earned a degree in international business and began a career in business development for multinational corporations. 

Ann, who asked me to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, married and had three children. But her husband grew vicious to her and the kids, and she began to fear for her life. She fled Uganda alone, planning for her children to join her later. She went first to the Middle East, where authorities seemed indifferent, before a friend told her to try Canada. With a visitor visa in hand, she used what little money she had to book a plane ticket and an Airbnb in Etobicoke, in Toronto’s west end, for five days last November. The first day, she phoned Legal Aid Ontario and asked how to make an asylum claim. She asked whether she’d be welcome and safe in Canada and when her children would be able to join her, and was told that her concerns would be dealt with in time. To find a place to stay, she called Central Intake, Toronto’s 24-hour hotline for emergency shelter. 

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Over countless calls across four days, the Central Intake operators told her every shelter in the city was full; one suggested she extend her Airbnb stay. She found a list of shelters in the city. One by one, she visited each by bus or on foot. One by one, she was turned away and told beds were booked through Central Intake. At the time, nearly one-third of the people living in the city’s shelter system were refugee claimants like her. She retreated to her Airbnb and watched snow pile up outside the window. She had never seen it before, and she thought she should be enjoying its beauty. Instead, the ice crystals terrified her. If she didn’t find a place immediately, she would be sleeping out there. 

A friend back home told her to seek advice from Eddie Jjumba, a Ugandan-Canadian mental health worker and clergyman who was volunteering with Dominion Church International in North York. Like other Black-led churches that serve the African diaspora, Dominion had converted its premises into a makeshift home for asylum seekers. The day after she connected by phone with Jjumba, Ann slept in the church’s nave along with about 100 other asylum seekers, with a divider separating men and women. She lived there for a month, but the church wasn’t financially or logistically equipped to house people all winter. 

Eventually Ann ended up in a city-operated shelter run out of the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place. “That was the worst nightmare of my life,” she says. It was poorly heated, she says, and many people slept on the cots in winter coats. Men and women shared the space, and young girls came to the older women for comfort. One man continually masturbated near the women. After someone confronted an administrator about the cold, the heaters were turned up and the temperature soared to desert-like intensity. When people complained, social workers told them to be glad they had a roof over their head and grateful to be in Canada at all. Jjumba says he has heard similar complaints. 

 Ann suffered panic attacks, waking in the middle of the night gasping for air, thinking she might be having a heart attack. She thought about leaving Canada. Whatever awaited her if she did—even the murderous rage of her husband—couldn’t be worse than this new life in Canada. Other residents wondered if they would be safer sleeping outside, on the wintry streets; Jjumba had to convince some women to stay at the shelter.

Ann is one of 144,000 people who sought asylum in this country last year—55 per cent more than the 92,000 who arrived in 2022, and nearly six times the 25,000 who came here in 2021. So far in 2024, numbers are on pace to at least match last year, with almost 47,000 claimants from January to the end of March. Ann is also one of thousands of asylum seekers who faced homelessness—who slept in a shelter, a church basement, a tent village or simply on the streets. Most of these people have ended up in the country’s largest cities. In the summer of 2023, asylum seekers in Toronto became so desperate for shelter they camped out en masse outside the city’s downtown Assessment and Referral Centre, where people can find food, hygiene and other supplies, and get connected with housing supports. 

“Almost everybody I meet is either in a shelter or out on the street,” says Diana Chan McNally, a harm-reduction manager at Toronto’s All Saints Church-Community Centre, which offers housing support, case management and meal programs to anyone who walks through its doors. Since 2016, McNally has been a frontline worker with the unhoused. She says that, in the past few years, the number of asylum seekers and refugees she encounters has skyrocketed, and this recent winter was the worst she’s ever seen: “I taught people to take plastic bags and newspaper, roll it up into balls and stuff it into their clothing as insulation. That’s literally all that I had to give people to mitigate the cold.” 

Two major factors have come together in the past few years to overwhelm Canada’s capacity for asylum seekers. The first is simply the surge in claimants. After hitting a peak in 1990, the number of asylum seekers globally plunged for two decades. But beginning in 2012, that figure began rising, doubling over the next decade. More recently, pandemic restrictions at borders and airports have eased. In February of 2023, Canada tweaked its visitor visa requirements, waiving the requirement for visitors arriving by air to prove that they were in fact just visiting. The government issued visas to nearly half a million applicants under the more lenient measures, and asylum claims surged, especially at the international airports in Toronto and Montreal. The system has a huge backlog. It takes two years, on average, for an Immigration and Refugee tribunal to decide whether an asylum seeker’s claim is legitimate—in which case they become a refugee in Canada—or whether they’ll have to leave the country. In the meantime, they’re left in limbo as their claims are assessed, and forced to depend on an increasingly overburdened support system to survive.

The second factor is the steep rise in the cost of living across Canada, which has devastated that support system. The Canadian government does not guarantee housing for asylum seekers. When refugee claimants arrive, their housing needs are often served by a patchwork of not-for-profits, community organizations, faith groups and other organizations that help newcomers. But many of those have been pushed to the brink by soaring rents and other costs. The consequences have been all too visible: as of mid-April, there were 4,332 refugee claimants in shelters in Toronto alone, and 1,961 more being housed in places like repurposed hotels.

The crisis won’t end any time soon. McNally points out that, beyond some short-term funding injections, the federal government appears to have no comprehensive plan or national strategy to tackle the problem. Each city is left on its own to cobble together scarce funds and rely on non-profit organizations that have been pushed into debt by the crisis. The consequence is that men, women and children who have already passed through extraordinarily difficult circumstances are left to again fend for themselves, this time on the streets of Canadian cities.

Providing refuge for the world’s displaced people has long felt to Canadians like a quintessential national virtue, similar to peacekeeping or universal health care. It elevates our country and sets it apart. For years, we had reason to feel this way, because we were very good at it. Prior to about 2017, the process was simple. Asylum seekers would arrive at an airport or land border, make their claim and have their case heard within a day or two by an officer from either the Canada Border Services Agency or Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. If they were deemed eligible, their case would be referred for a hearing in front of the IRCC refugee board to determine whether they could remain as a refugee for the long haul. The federal government provided medical care and small amounts of social assistance, and asylum seekers could also apply for work permits. And they often found temporary housing by connecting with charitable groups and shelters dedicated to supporting them. Until the recent surge, the network of community groups dedicated to assisting them largely handled the task.

Since 1980, this process has brought to Canada more than one million refugees, many of whom have come in high-profile waves: Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in the 1970s and ’80s; Kosovars in the 1990s; Iraqis and Syrians in the 2000s and 2010s; and, recently, Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country. Canada has also innovated unique approaches to refugee integration, like the sponsorship system. In the 1970s, in response to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, the federal government piloted that model, in which private citizens or organizations could put up their own funds to cover the cost of housing and feeding a refugee for a year, bypassing the usual argument about migrants being a financial burden on the state. Sponsors help integrate newcomers into Canadian life as well. That program has since been emulated worldwide and become a cornerstone of Canada’s resettlement efforts. As of 2020, 327,000 refugees have been sponsored by ordinary Canadians who provided food, housing and a new start in a new country. 

But, in a few short years, this has all come apart—the sponsorship system, the not-for-profits and faith groups and charities that support asylum seekers, and the job and housing opportunities, which depended on a social and economic framework that has in a few short years begun to fall apart. And it is in the country’s large cities, especially Toronto, where the cost-of-living crisis and the refugee crisis have come together most dramatically. Ontario has fewer homes per capita than the national average and nearly the highest housing costs. Shelter is out of reach for many Canadians, let alone asylum seekers. Even refugees who have sponsors to help them secure housing are facing growing challenges. 

Jodi Block is the community engagement manager at Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, a group that has, in partnership with private sponsors, helped bring 870 refugees to Canada since 2015. She says that the amount the Canadian government requires to sponsor a refugee—about $19,000 for one adult per year—is profoundly unrealistic, not even covering rent in the Greater Toronto Area. Block’s organization has created a new position solely devoted to supporting the housing needs of newcomers. “We weren’t in the business of finding homes for refugees until the last year, when we realized there was no choice,” she says. Block says that she’s seeing fatigue among supporters. Compared to the Syrian refugee crisis several years ago, or the influx of Ukrainians in 2022, when people stepped forward with assistance in huge numbers, there are now fewer resources, and it’s harder to find volunteers and funders. Surging rents and inflation, she says, have also stretched the salaries of workers and the resources of organizations like hers. 

A man in a purple and white shirt sits at a desk
Daniel Kigonya, the head of operations and programs support at the African Centre for Refugees in Ontario Canada, works at the organization’s office in an apartment in Toronto’s Church Wellesley Village

The African Centre for Refugees in Ontario Canada, or AFCROC, is encountering the same struggles. It helps asylum seekers fill out immigration paperwork, obtain government-issued identification and find housing, but more recently, it’s provided makeshift shelter for clients. Now even that is in danger.

AFCROC was founded in 2019 by Christopher Nkambwe, a trans woman who fled her home country of Uganda in 2019, where harsh anti-LGBTQ+ laws threatened her life. In Canada she found safety from transphobic violence, but her life proved bewildering in other ways. She found few resources to help navigate her new country. “I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t have family, I didn’t look out for any organizations to support me, I didn’t have a lawyer,” she recalls. She slept in a shelter for months before finding stable housing.

Nkambwe soon realized there were many queer Africans fleeing danger, but arriving in a country that couldn’t guarantee a warm bed. With funds from a cleaning job she’d found, she started AFCROC. It operates on a shoestring budget; Nkambwe’s studio apartment doubles as its headquarters. I visited on a mid-February day to find five men fleeing homophobic persecution sheltering there—Uganda had passed another draconian law in May of 2023, criminalizing same-sex conduct and threatening those found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” with death. 

“I chose to come to Canada,” said a man named Daniel. “Beyond the human rights, Canada is peaceful. You don’t hear a lot about shootings, for example, in Canada. You don’t hear about a lot of stabbings in Canada.” But he and the other men live precariously in Toronto. Months after arriving, they still sleep in shelters that are crowded, cold and filled with people with severe mental illnesses or using drugs—or both—screaming throughout the night. The shelter facilities close each day for cleaning, leaving the men with nowhere to stay during the day, even in the coldest winter months. Without AFCROC’s space in Nkambwe’s small home, they would have nowhere else to go. 

Recently, Nkambwe has been having a dispute with her landlord and now faces the prospect of being again without a fixed place to live, just like she was when she arrived in Canada five years ago. And the clients who depend on her will be left with one less place to find refuge.

Scrambling to cope with the influx, the federal government has cobbled together a patchwork of fixes, some ad hoc, some more permanent. One example of the latter is an “African Canadian Affordable Housing Village,” a planned multi-generational housing development that will offer affordable housing and community supports to African newcomers. The project requires municipal and federal co-operation: the land is to be provided by the city of Toronto, and the funding will come from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The idea is the brainchild of Kizito Musabimana, executive director of the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre, a not-for-profit he founded in 2018 to provide mental-health support, shelter and other services to African migrants. Musabimana left his home country of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, including members of his own family. After several years as refugees in Kenya, he and his brother came to Canada in 2000, settling first in Montreal. They later moved to Toronto, living in youth shelters while saving enough money from jobs as cooks to rent and furnish a two-bedroom apartment.

A Rwandan man photographed in front of a dark-coloured wall
Kizito Musabimana came to Canada in 2000. He can’t imagine a refugee today finding a way into Canadian life as easily as he did.

Today, he finds it impossible to imagine a migrant following such a relatively easy path. RCHC is located at 117 Peter Street, very close to the downtown Assessment and Referral Centre where some scores of asylum claimants camped out every night for six months last year. Seeing so many people, including Africans, lying on the street outside his window reminded him of the refugee camps he spent time in before he left Rwanda. 

That encampment was also the first and most immediate crisis facing incoming Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow last year, and one that sparked a clash between the city and the feds over which level of government bore responsibility for the influx. Chow speaks about this issue with the zealousness of a missionary. When I met her in her office this spring, she pointed out Toronto’s long history of absorbing newcomers, citing the influx of Irish refugees in 1847—38,000 people fleeing the country’s potato famine, when Toronto itself had only 20,000 people. 

But the city can only do so much. Municipalities in Canada may provide shelter and other services, but the federal and provincial governments share jurisdiction over immigration and have the greater financial resources. Chow’s own political history had shown her what the feds were capable of when it came to supporting newcomers. In the 1970s, as an activist during the movement to bring Southeast Asian refugees to Canada, she saw the impact of the sponsorship program. In the 2000s, as an NDP MP representing Toronto’s Trinity—Spadina riding, she served on Parliament’s citizen and immigration committee, where she saw deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. 

Last year, city hall decided to play hardball with Ottawa: unless the federal government boosted funding for newcomer services to the city, Toronto would levy a six per cent “federal impacts” tax on city residents. Liberal MPs were furious about the gambit, saying Ottawa had already been generous with the city. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland had already insisted that it was the province that was responsible for ponying up more cash. Yvan Baker, the Liberal MP for Etobicoke, said Chow was lying to Torontonians about how supportive the federal government had been. 

 As the governments sparred, conditions on the streets worsened. Last November, a Nigerian asylum seeker in his 40s was found dead in a tent outside a shelter in Mississauga, just west of Toronto. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said at the time that shelters in Peel Region, which includes Brampton and Mississauga, were operating at 300 per cent capacity, and 150 people were sleeping outdoors every night. The man’s death was shocking; even more shocking is that he died anonymously. Authorities still don’t know who he was. 

Ultimately, the federal government backed down. In February, Chow stood side by side with Freeland to announce $143 million in additional supports for asylum seekers and refugees in shelters. It was a massive shift to meet the needs of the moment. “It wasn’t meant to be a battle,” says Chow. “It’s a shared responsibility.”

The injection of funding, however, hasn’t translated into a coherent or long-term strategy. For that, other ideas have been floated. The feds could establish a national system of reception centres that provide newcomers with a clear, routine path toward accessing shelter and other basic needs. Asylum seekers could receive transitional housing and connect with potential employers. The feds could temporarily slow new refugee arrivals and prioritize clearing the backlog of current asylum claims. They could better fund the network of local organizations, landlords and faith groups that support newcomers. Above all, the Canadian government could recognize that welcoming and integrating refugee claimants is a national challenge, requiring the participation and coordination of all three levels of government—and funding to match. 

This January, staff at the Better Living Centre asked shelter residents if they wanted to be transferred to a different facility, though they weren’t initially told where, or whether it would be any different. Ann took her chances and found herself on a federal-government-chartered bus to Kingston, Ontario, along with asylum seekers from other shelters. They arrived, after dark, at a downtown hotel.

Governments have landed on hotels as a temporary fix for overcrowded shelters. It’s an inefficient solution—hotels are often poorly located and can be disconnected from other services or networks that offer permanent solutions. They are also extremely expensive for the government. None of that mattered that night to those who arrived at the hotel in Kingston, of course—some wept with joy. Instead of an enormous open shelter, residents shared rooms and bathrooms with one other person. They had stability and privacy and, for two months, lived in dignity. Then in March, all the residents were moved to a motel nearby. This one was somewhat different: four people and their possessions to a room, sleeping on cots rather than beds. One of Ann’s roommates cried all night, every night, over the chance that her accountant credentials would go unrecognized in Canada and she’d have to make a new career for herself. Ann developed neck pain from the hard mattresses and began knocking back ibuprofens.

Ann had no money. Although her work permit was approved quickly, the temporary social insurance number she requires to work was held up. Instead she took whatever courses she could online and volunteered at not-for-profit organizations. She interviewed for a part-time job as a custodian in April and, by luck, her SIN arrived two days after, allowing her to start working. She would like nothing more than to leave the motel, but with a part-time, $17-per-hour job, even renting a one-bedroom apartment in Kingston is well beyond her means; the average rent for a newly listed one-bedroom apartment is around $1,800. If she returned to Toronto she’d be paying far more; the average rent for a new listing there is nearly $700 more per month. Still, thinking back to those terrifying first days in Canada, facing the possibility of sleeping in the streets, she knows she could be facing far worse circumstances. 

A few months after the death of the unnamed Nigerian outside the shelter in Mississauga, another person died after waiting outside the same facility. This time there was a name attached: Delphina Ngigi, a woman who was born in 1978 in Kenya, the oldest of five children. She had four children of her own, all boys, who are now in school and between the ages of nine and 22. This February, she arrived at Pearson and claimed asylum. Her sister, Wairimu Faith, says she chose Canada for its safety and its reputation as a welcoming nation. Soon after arriving, she phoned her sister and told her she was grateful to be in Canada. 

She began looking for a shelter that could take her, but every one on the list she had was full. By the time she arrived at the shelter in Mississauga, the system was operating at 400 per cent capacity, and officials there told her to wait in the cold because they were full. So she did, for seven hours. She was eventually let into the lobby, where she spent the night. The next morning, after showering, she had a pulmonary embolism and collapsed. She was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. She was 45 years old.

Ngigi’s sister flew to Toronto in March for a memorial service. Family and community members remembered her as a vibrant, funny woman, and her baby photos appeared on large screens. Videos of her children and her mother speaking about her played as she lay in a white casket at the front of the room, surrounded by pink flowers. Faith told the congregation that she’d received calls from across the world, and she was glad Ngigi’s story had moved people. But many people she spoke to wanted to know why her sister was outside in the first place, how in a country like Canada she could have faced such circumstances. They asked how she could have died as she did. “And I just don’t have answers,” Faith said.


This story appears in the July issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.