Quebec's social services under pressure by influx of asylum seekers: advocates

MONTREAL — An increasing number of asylum seekers to Quebec is putting pressure on the province’s social services network, with homeless shelters in Montreal bearing the brunt of the influx of people, advocates say.

Administrative delays within the federal asylum application process and a lack of resources at organizations mandated to help would-be refugees are forcing the vulnerable group to turn to homeless shelters, France Labelle, executive director of a downtown Montreal youth shelter, said in a recent interview.

“It is not that we don’t want to welcome these people, because shelters are there to welcome people in need, but the problem is that the network is already overwhelmed,” she said. “On top of that, it is winter, so our capacity is very limited.”

Labelle, who runs Le Refuge des jeunes de Montréal, said her shelter receives about 500 people per year and that since the spring, it has helped 57 asylum seekers. In 2021, the number of would-be refugees seeking shelter at her organization was "much lower," she said, adding that she didn't have an official number. She said her shelter is currently at capacity.

The federal government says that between January and November 2022, 45,250 asylum seekers arrived in Quebec, compared to 7,290 would-be refugees who entered the country through the province for all of 2021.

Sam Watts, head of homeless shelters with the Welcome Hall Mission, says he has also seen a rise over the last few months in asylum seekers looking for a place to stay. Homelessness in the asylum seeker population in Montreal is a relatively new phenomenon, he said in a recent interview.

Since August, his group's two homeless shelters have welcomed about 37 asylum seekers every month, he said.

“It goes as high as 46 in some months, and they stay between 12 and 19 days typically,” he said.

“I think I can confirm what everybody else will, which is that it does have an impact on the overall services because while we are serving around 340 people on any given day in our network — the fact that there’s an extra 40 people has an impact. We see it, and we feel it.”

Labelle said most of the asylum seekers looking for shelter at her organization came by plane from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi or Senegal.

“We have noticed an increase in youth coming from Mexico recently; we have youth from Haiti," she said.

“And the stories are different. Some are here fleeing war; others are fleeing drug traffickers. For some, it has to do with their sexual orientation. Out of about 50 youth, we found that 15 were dealing with mental health issues that require intervention by health professionals.”

Watts said his organization’s food bank has also seen an increase in demand.

“We typically serve about 7,000 people every month … and that has gone up from 6,000 people, and easily 50 per cent of that is attributable to a variety of new arrivals. It can be simply new people in the city, but a lot of them are people that are refugees and asylum seekers."

Quebec’s Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers is responsible for delivering services to would-be refugees, including temporary housing, health care and information on the immigration process. Spokespeople for that program declined an interview request and referred questions to the federal Immigration Department.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in an email that housing for asylum seekers remains a provincial responsibility, adding that the federal government is committed to working with the provinces to help alleviate the pressure.

Premier François Legault said last month that Quebec needed help from Ottawa to house, educate and integrate the rising number of asylum seekers in the province.

Catherine Pappas, director of a community development organization in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, said her district has been heavily affected by the growing number of asylum seekers needing help. She wants the government to intervene before the situation becomes unsustainable.

“There is a lack of responsibility by both governments — one passing the buck to the other," Pappas said in an interview Wednesday. "So, there is really no co-ordination in the management of this crisis, because it is a crisis."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press