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'It's a calling': York Region church housing immigrants despite government friction

York Region is funding hotel sites for African asylum seekers, but some want to remain at Miracle Arena church site where they have found a sense of belonging

Jade Latavis said she came to Canada in fear of the violence in her previous home country, Uganda.

“Based on what was happening and just for my own safety, I had to leave the country,” she said.

Latavis decided to come to Canada in search of safety and asylum. A Christian, she decided to go to the Miracle Arena For All Nations church in Vaughan, which had become a haven for many African asylum seekers over the past several months.

There, Latavis said she has found a sense of belonging. However, she expressed that there remains a need for more government support.

“The government should be more considerate of the community,” she said. “It's emotionally draining when you come to a country that you’re hoping for a better life and there is no one to talk to. And even if you speak, there is no one that hears you well."

York Region and Miracle Arena have been in negotiations for several months, with members from the church making repeated pleas for support regarding their efforts to house an influx of asylum seekers from African countries. While the region has agreed to fund $4.3 million for asylum seekers here, the church has said it does not go far enough for them, and there has been tension regarding the services done there versus at hotel sites the region has opened.

Church official Isaac Capone said the situation there is stable for now. The site has several units, heated and insulated, built for the approximately 40 refugees staying there. The church has been housing people for months, using a bus and even constructing wooden tiny homes during the summer.

“We don’t focus on the immigrant, where they’re coming from, who they are,” he said, adding the focus is on “the fact that they’re here and they need help. It is our goal to continue helping in the church. The church is naturally a refuge. It’s a place of shelter."

Ifeanyr Okeke is another asylum seeker living on the site, previously from Nigeria.

“My country, it wasn’t good,” he said. “Killing of people, people demanding for freedom. The government neglected to give them the freedom … Shot them, killed them, whenever they protested. So that’s why, I’m a victim of that, so I chose to find my way and come to Canada."

He expressed appreciation for the support he has received so far from Canadian governments. 

“They have done a lot of work, which I’ve not experienced back in my country,” he said. “They are trying their best to make sure we are safe, we are being provided (for).”

But Capone said the church hopes to partner with the region, and that residents there could find some way to access more of the social services offered at hotel sites the region has opened. He said that include things like counselling and Ontario Works. 

There has also been some friction over some of the conditions of the housing on the site, Capone said. Vaughan Mayor Steven Del Duca suggested at a council meeting that the church was not suitable for housing.

However, Capone said after the meeting, the region has more recently been more amenable to working with the church. 

He described recent visits from bylaw and public health units.

“They let us know what we need to do, that they’re willing to work with us. It was a totally different experience than we expected it to be,” he said. 

Regional visit

With asylum seekers still needing more support, the region is calling for upper levels of government to step in. Council passed a resolution Jan. 25 asking the federal government to cover the expenses for these services, expected to be $14.1 million if required until the end of 2024. It also urged the federal government to establish a centralized intake for refugee claimants.

“We are all facing the crisis here in York Region and in other region and areas,” Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said, adding that the federal government “better realize this is not just a City of Toronto problem.”

Whitchurch-Stouffvile Mayor Iain Lovatt said the York Region federal Liberal caucus is also aware of the situation and is supporting the region’s efforts for funding.

Community and health services commissioner Katherine Chislett said all levels of government have a role to play.

“York Region, for some time now, we’ve been at the forefront in responding,” she said. “The region and its partners are helping people navigate through difficult situations.” 

Chislett visited Miracle Arena Jan. 25 to speak with representatives. Church representatives had residents ask a series of questions to Chislett, raising concerns about the assistance the region is offering.

Chislett said ultimately, even though the hotels are not ideal, they are an improvement over something like taking over arenas and setting up cots.

“It’s the best we could do with the time we have,” she said. 

Cost overruns are a problem, even after the $4.3 million provided from the budget, she said. 

“I have to pay attention to what I can do to manage the cost while at the same time providing dignified, safe places for people." she said.

The funding lasts until March 31, after which either the region or other levels of government will need to supply more. After the federal government did not provide any funding for the region’s hotel open for Ukrainian refugees, the region closed the hotel site it had opened for them last year. 

Chislett said regardless, they want to treat anyone who comes to York Region well. But in response to some points of concern, Chislett said issues could be better addressed at one of the regional hotel sites.

“I’d rather have people helping you as much as we possibly can, (rather) than ending up on the street,” she said, adding there are about 35 different encampments in York Region right now with people living outside. “They are not getting the service you’re getting. We’re doing everything we can.”

York Region and municipalities are offering warming sites through the winter and it attempts to work with those encampments to find housing or alternative places to stay. But the region has been challenged with the rise in homelessness, with shelter space generally at or near capacity. 

 One resident asked Chislett about getting a bus stop at the church, something church delegates raised as an issue. 

“It’s frustration, having to wake up and leave this place,” she said. “I have to walk 30 minutes … It’s cold. It’s really, really cold.”

Chislett responded the region would not be adding a bus stop, and the best solution is staying at one of the hotel sites where transportation can be more co-ordinated.

Asked about more support to the church for its housing efforts, Chislett said there is no money to give.

“Move into one of the hotels. That’s a way we can provide funding and provide some of these supports,” she said, adding that churches are “an important part of the social system, but we don’t fund them to do that.”

Still, church officials indicated they were glad to have Chislett attend and hear out concerns.

Chislett further indicated that they are trying to make the hotels a point for just food and shelter, with supports being available out in the community and the region able to help connect people to them. 

"People know where the churches are, they know where the Ontario Works office (is)," she said in a meeting with church officials. "There's nothing getting in the way and we're happy to share that information."

Church wants to keep housing 

Capone said they will continue to help refugees.

“It’s a calling. We are needed, so we’re going to, of course, work with these different organizations that want to work with us to continue helping the vulnerable persons,” he said. 

Asked about Miracle Arena versus a hotel site, Latavis said the support she received from the church has made her want to stay on site. 

“It’s warm and exciting for someone to make you feel like you belong,” she said, adding the government should pitch in to support the site.  “They make you feel so happy. That’s why I really like it.”

Latavis said she has found Canada to be a beautiful country.

“I long to be in this country,” she said .”I really love the country … I’m hoping, and I know, it will be so good for me.”