Financial challenges force 2 Toronto churches to stop sheltering refugees

The cost of sheltering refugees and asylum seekers has become unsustainable for two Toronto churches, who have decided to close their doors to guests by the end of this year.

Over the last six months, Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles in north Etobicoke and Dominion Church International in North York have welcomed more than 2,000 unhoused refugees, many of whom sought their help after finding themselves sleeping on the sidewalk outside the City of Toronto’s Central Intake Centre at 129 Peter St.

Like several faith-based groups in the GTA that are sheltering refugees, Pilgrim Feast and Dominion run on mostly in-kind and cash donations.

Both did receive a small amount of financial help from the City of Toronto when it allocated $750,000 to churches and community organizations to reimburse them for expenses they incurred sheltering refugees.

Dominion received $190,000, while Pilgrim Feast got just under $200,000 plus an earlier $50,000 from the city, but officials say the funding wasn’t enough for them to keep their doors open into 2024.

“This is not about being done and tired. … We are practically not even able to afford food,” Pastor Eddie Jjumba, who is coordinating the refugee sheltering effort at Dominion, said on Thursday afternoon.

“We are totally depleted.”

Jjumba, who serves as the senior pastor of Milliken Wesleyan Methodist Church, said that Dominion has spent upwards of $800,000 since last July. He estimates that the church now has a debt of about $650,000.

“We are in a significant financial difficulty and we are yet to figure out how to come out of it. I’m not ashamed to say we need help,” he shared.

Over in Rexdale, Nadine Miller, the executive director of Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, said her group has also found itself in a similar predicament and is contending with a debt of roughly $900,000.

She said they’re at the point where they can no longer pay their rent and are struggling to keep the heat on.

“(Closing our doors) is not what we want to do. … Christmas is coming and we’d like to keep going, but the truth is it’s not possible to keep going unless we get a miracle,” Miller said.

“We’re in a deficit we’ve never dreamed of. … Our credit cards and our loans are maxed out. … Our relationship is fractured with our landlord.”

Miller said it’s impossible to continue doing this kind of work on a volunteer level and every day the cost of running the makeshift shelter goes up.

Both Jjumba and Miller said they feel anger and resentment towards the federal government for granting people visas but not having the right support in place to help them succeed in their new life in Canada.

In a statement provided to, the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) said that it is assisting both churches in their “need to return to regular operations.”

“To help facilitate churches to scale down, the city has been coordinating with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to arrange for transfers of many refugee claimants at churches to federally run hotels throughout southern Ontario. These transfers are happening regularly,” City of Toronto spokesperson Bradlee Bomberry said.

He noted that the city is continuing to advocate to the federal government for a “dedicated, regional reception centre for refugee claimants to provide a welcoming space and connection to centralized services for these new arrivals.”

Bomberry also said that the City of Toronto urgently needs the feds to “commit to reimbursing the balance of expenses incurred by the City in 2023 to support the refugee response, currently projected to be $103 million by year-end.”

“Nothing is more important than a sustainable, long-term strategy so municipalities across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area can appropriately manage demand and offer new arrivals a dignified welcome,” he said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told in an email that it “recognizes the effort and hard work that local communities, notably churches, have undertaken to support asylum claimants in their time of need” and is looking at suitable options to keep people warm this winter.

Spokesperson Matthew Krupovich said that the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller has been in touch with Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and is in regular discussions with municipal officials as they “work on finding solutions to this issue,” including the city’s requests for financial assistance.

Krupovich also noted that earlier this year, in response to “extraordinary interim housing pressures,” IRCC announced an extension of the Interim Housing Assistance Program until March 31, 2024, with additional funding of $212 million, including $97 million for Toronto.

“There is no simple solution but we are confident that, with full engagement from all levels of government, we can implement long-term, sustainable, and compassionate measures that will ensure that the most vulnerable newcomers have a roof over their heads,” he said.

Currently, just over 20 refugees are staying at Dominion. The church made the difficult decision to stop accepting new guests about a month and a half ago. Every few days, IRCC moves a few refugees from there to hotels and other shelter sites in GTA and southern Ontario.

Just under 70 guests remain at Pilgrim Feast, which is expected to close its doors on Dec. 28.

Both organizations told that they’d like to continue supporting refugees and asylum seekers in some way, especially as the cold weather sets in, but can no longer bear the responsibility of offering them shelter.

“We won’t stop helping, but having people staying at our site is just becoming impossible,” Miller said.

“Pilgrim Feast will go down in history as an organization that stood up for humanity. We stood up for Canada.”

Dominion Church, meanwhile, has launched a fundraising campaign to build a multi-purpose community centre with a 500-bed shelter on a 48-acre parcel of land in Peterborough.

Jagmeet Singh at refugee roundtable

On Thursday morning, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh held a roundtable discussion with a few shelter providers, faith groups, and organizations assisting African refugees to get a better understanding of their pressing needs as he continues to push the feds to do more now to support refugees and asylum seekers.

The meeting was held at East End United, which recently sheltered 30 refugees who were displaced when the landlord of Dominion required them to vacate a banquet hall they were occupying next to the church’s main church sanctuary.

The gathering took place one day after Singh demanded that Justin Trudeau to step up amid Toronto’s refugee housing crisis.

“Churches aren’t shelters and we’re not trained to be shelters,” said Rev. Brianne Swan.

“We just did the best we could in really, really challenging circumstances.”


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