FCJ Refugee Centre has been resettling refugees for decades. (Photograph courtesy of Tsering Lhamo)

Topics: Ethical Living | Human Rights

Community support helps refugee family find home amidst Canada’s housing crisis

In Toronto, the 6,000 asylum seekers in need of beds make up more than half the city’s shelter population, Chua writes


Ana P* was desperate. She was sexually violated by her employer’s brother, who eventually became the father of her child. He didn’t want their son to be born—she was a low-income Black woman in Southern Africa, he was a wealthy white businessman—so he threatened to kill both of them. 

Ana reported him to the authorities, but he was not arrested. She felt trapped. She knew her only solution was to leave the country.

In 2019, a local church helped Ana and her son—then seven years old— fly to Canada. But when they got to Toronto, Ana and her son became two of the thousands of refugees who struggled to find beds in the city’s shelter system. Demand for space only grew from there. 

On Feb. 1, Mayor Olivia Chow said the 6,000 asylum seekers in need of beds in Toronto constituted more than half of the city’s shelter population. The shelter system is so full that this past fall, the city was forced to turn away half of the people seeking help each day.


At the same time, Canada continues to grapple with a nationwide housing affordability problem, leaving newcomers unable to find housing. Many are forced to sleep on the streets or in stopgap accommodations provided by local organizations.

Tsering Lhamo, the associate director of settlement at FCJ Refugee Centre, said her organization sees 75 to 90 refugee claimants seeking shelter on intake days, but their four transition houses are always full. “Having a waiting list is just not possible anymore,” she said. “We even started letting people stay in the living rooms in emergency cases.” 

Ana and her son got lucky. When they looked for beds at FCJ Refugee Centre in 2019, Lhamo was able to give them a bedroom in one of the centre’s transition houses for women and children. 

Two months later, Lhamo found a one-year transition house for them: in the basement of Alejandro Paz’s house.

Paz is an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto and has lived in the city since 2006. He contacted Lhamo after Premier Doug Ford controversially cut legal aid for refugees in 2019. “That hit home for me and my wife,” he said. “Our parents were Jewish refugees who escaped during the Second World War. We started to think about providing our basement to a refugee family until they can get permanent housing.”

More on Broadview:

When they moved in, Paz’s family gave Ana and her son a tour of the neighbourhood, including the school her son and Paz’s children would attend. 

Paz gave Ana’s son toys to play with. He also paid for their after-school programs fees. On New Year’s Eve, Ana and her son joined Paz’s family as they lit up fireworks together.

“The fireworks wouldn’t light up at first, though, and his kids complained, ‘Dad, make it work!’ And we all laughed a lot,” Ana said. “It was a very important day in my life.”

Paz said he and his family didn’t have any concerns about housing refugees. “FCJ Refugee Centre has been resettling refugees for decades,” he said. “Tsering [Lhamo] was very clear that she wanted this arrangement to work properly.” While Paz provided Ana and her son the housing space, Lhamo helped them with their forms and legal paperwork. 

“I did not imagine that there are still people in this world like Mr. Alejandro,” Ana said. She and her son stayed with the Paz family until November 2020.

Afterwards, Ana struggled to find a place to rent because she was an asylum seeker who only had $1,002 in monthly social assistance allowance. Landlords rejected her rental application for eight months. 

“Newcomers don’t have credit history or references,” Lhamo explained. “They also most likely don’t know how to navigate the housing market here: how to look for a rental place or understand what a rental agreement is.”

Indeed, Ana once accepted a sublet from a friend who lived in subsidized housing, not knowing her friend did not have the right to sublet the house in the first place. When the government discovered Ana and her son there, they gave her a month and a half to leave the house. After considering moving back into a shelter, Ana was finally able to secure an apartment in East York. 

But refugees who want a similar housing arrangement as Ana and Paz may be in luck. In August 2023, the non-profit Happipad launched a home-sharing program called Refugee Housing Canada, which matches refugees who need temporary and affordable housing with homeowners offering spare rooms. 

More help seems to be on its way.

Want to read more from Broadview? Consider subscribing to one of our newsletters.

In November 2023, Ottawa announced it will provide $7 million to help Peel Region open a reception centre for asylum seekers near Toronto Pearson International Airport. “It’s very good news,” Lhamo said. “We’ve been advocating for that, so that people can have a detailed orientation when they land and don’t end up on the street.”

On Feb. 2, Ottawa unveiled another plan to provide over $162 million to help Toronto house refugee claimants, asylum seekers and other at-risk individuals, following weeks of pressure from Chow. The funding comes on top of the $97 million Toronto received from the federal government last summer for the same purpose. 

“It’s important to name the root cause of all this, which is the inadequate support for affordable or subsidized housing, as well as a lack of housing supply,” Lhamo said. 

Ana is making big moves, too. She’s about to start a new job and is attending school to improve her English. Once she gets better, she plans to start studying to become a social worker. 

“I like being here in Canada,” she said. She and her son are still waiting for their refugee statuses, almost five years after they landed. “I feel like I’ve already settled well here.”

* Ana P is omitting her full name to maintain her safety.

Alyanna Denise Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who reports on housing and immigration.  

We hope you found this Broadview article engaging.  Our team is working hard to bring you more independent, award-winning journalism. But Broadview is a nonprofit and these are tough times for magazines. Please consider supporting our work. There are a number of ways to do so:

  • Subscribe to our magazine and you’ll receive intelligent, timely stories and perspectives delivered to your home 8 times a year. 
  • Donate to our Friends Fund.
  • Give the gift of Broadview to someone special in your life and make a difference!

Thank you for being such wonderful readers.

Jocelyn Bell


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.