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Meeting Refugee Claimants in Willowdale


The most significant (and challenging) part of last week

On Tuesday evening my team and I had the opportunity to visit the residents at the Willowdale Welcome Centre at 5800 Yonge St. We had nearly 20 one-on-one conversations where we heard the stories, concerns, and successes of asylum seekers from Singapore, Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Turkey. We are grateful for the trust they placed in us to share their deeply personal narratives. The courage and determination displayed by these individuals have deeply touched us, prompting reflections on how their lives unfold within our city.


A predominant concern, not exclusive to these newcomers, was the lack of affordable housing. Many residents shared they have difficulty sleeping in large communal settings paired with the stress of their circumstances. We could feel the weight of their struggles in our meetings. Another challenge for some of the residents included a prolonged wait for essential documentation, such as work permits and SIN, preventing them to commence their lives, search for employment, and secure housing. 


There were also inspiring moments in our conversations including a woman who secured her first job after one year in the shelter and others who have found meaning through volunteering in the  neighbourhood. One gentleman shared how he takes time to pastor his fellow residents and provide spiritual care.


Key Takeaways from our Conversations:


The residents need hope and encouragement. Amidst the many challenges and barriers they face, it would be great if more volunteer groups could bring joy and connection to the shelter. They also need meaningful ways to contribute. It is very hard to wait patiently through bureaucratic processes with the pressures of an unknown future. NeighbourLink North York will be connecting to Homes First to find ways to build more bridges to the community.


Documentation Delays: The prolonged duration required to obtain crucial documentation, including work permits and SIN, significantly hinders residents from embarking on their journey towards settlement in Canada. While some were able to secure these documents faster, we are unsure why others have encountered barriers. We will work with Homes First and our MP Ali Ehsassi to identify why some residents are able to get paperwork while others languish.


Insufficient Social Services and Support Personnel: The current array of social services within and around the shelter proves inadequate for the diverse needs of 420 refugees navigating the challenges of settling into Canada.  With only one Internal Case Manager providing support for all residents, many find it challenging to navigate the system without the aid of a case manager or settlement worker. We will be raising these concerns with Toronto Shelter & Support Services (TSSS) for discussion.


Infrastructure Concerns: Residents have expressed grievances about the building's inconveniences, raising concerns that need attention for the welfare of those residing there. We will also be addressing these concerns with TSSS.


It was difficult to hear about problems we cannot easily solve. We hope that by amplifying their concerns we are able to bring some support. However, the core issue for all of them is housing. It used to be asylum seekers would stay in shelters for 3 months and transition to something more permanent. Now, many are staying beyond one year and still struggling to find a place. These industrialized shelters are not ideal settings for the wellbeing of these residents and the mental health impacts could seriously impact their ability to thrive and build a positive future. We need creative solutions that lead to community based supports and housing. Homes First is trying to find landlords to work with. I am also a proponent of community based models such the one hosted in multiple houses by The Peoples Church where refugee claimants are supported in and by community. 

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