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Watchdog to probe Toronto policy to direct shelter-seeking refugee claimants to feds

Candles are lit during in front of city hall in Toronto on Sunday, March 20, 2021. Ombudsman Toronto says it has launched an investigation into city's decision to deny refugee claimants space in city shelters and direct them to federal programs.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto's ombudsman announced an investigation Thursday into the city's decision to deny refugee claimants certain shelter beds and instead direct them to federal programs. 

Ombudsman Kwame Addo says the investigation will determine whether the city met its obligations to the claimants and asylum seekers looking for a shelter bed. 

"There is no doubt that the City of Toronto is facing a housing crisis. Even so, the City has an obligation to treat all people in Toronto fairly, with dignity, respect, and care," he said in a statement Thursday. 

The probe will focus on a city decision announced in late May to deny claimants space in city shelters that were not specifically designated for refugees or asylum seekers. Instead, officials said staff would refer them to federal programs because Toronto had not been provided with the funding it needed to deal with unprecedented shelter demand. 

The move was quickly met with pushback from advocates, who argued it undermined Toronto's own policies and resulted in dozens of migrants sleeping on sidewalks outside a downtown referral centre. 

The investigation announced Thursday is the first to come out of the office's newly created housing unit led by deputy ombudsman Reema Patel, who is tasked with keeping a watch on the city's planning and delivery of housing programs.

"All people have a right to adequate housing that is safe and secure. Allegations that this right has been infringed – particularly with a group of people fleeing persecution in their home countries – is serious and must be thoroughly investigated," Patel said in a statement. 

The investigation is set to delve into what led to the decision, whether it was in keeping with policies, procedures and rules, and the city's communications with staff and the public. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto said it would fully co-operate with the investigation, pledging the ombudsman with "the entire scope of work undertaken by staff on this complex and important matter." 

Mayor Olivia Chow has put a spotlight on the issue since taking office in July, repeatedly pressing the federal government for more help to support the roughly 3,500 refugees currently in the shelter system. 

She says the $97 million pledged by Ottawa earlier this year is only a slice of the estimated $200 million it's expected to cost the city to shelter refugee claimants, who are projected to account for about half of city's shelter population by the end of the year. 

In a statement, Chow said although she's working with staff to ensure people, regardless of status, are provided with services, the city's shelters are full and hundreds of people are being turned away every night. 

"I welcome the Ombudsman's investigation as we keep working to ensure people are able to access the shelter spaces they need," her statement read. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2023. 

The Canadian Press

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