My great-great grandparents left the Scottish Hebrides and settled in Ontario in the mid-19th century as a consequence of the potato famines. Canada has been changed and culturally and economically enriched by waves of refugees that entered our borders for centuries and found a home. Some have fled war and persecution, others famine and drought, others tyranny and oppression, some for new opportunities and liberty.
A few days after Christmas, or now often transferred to Jan. 11, we commemorate the feast of the Holy Innocents. It recalls the scandalous slaughter of the children of Bethlehem perpetrated by a fearful king willing to go to any lengths to secure his power. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, warned in a dream, fled with Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt, political refugees in a foreign land, returning only when the king had died.
The story recapitulates the even more ancient story of the children of Jacob (Israel) finding safe refuge in Egypt in the face of famine at home, and then generations later, yet again fleeing rising oppression to return to their old homeland. This is the seminal story of the Exodus that shapes our Judeo-Christian tradition.
The injunction to treat foreigners with justice and compassion in Exodus 22 and 23 comes directly from this experience of the people: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Canada has opened its doors to refugees. Many of our parishes have chosen to sponsor refugee families, and these families are being welcomed well. But for some, particularly those not sponsored by faith-groups and privately, this is not the case.
The recent arrival in the Toronto region of thousands of refugees – combined with Toronto’s existing housing crisis – means that some refugees who have been fleeing for their lives from their homelands now face the possibility of dying on our city’s streets this winter because they have nowhere to live.
Romero House is one of the local community organizations that welcomes refugees in this city and has been witnessing the Toronto housing crisis through the eyes of some of the most vulnerable people in this country – refugee claimant families.
Refugee claimants fleeing persecution show up at Romero House’s door every day looking for emergency shelter. When Romero House is full, which is often the case, they look elsewhere for beds. However, in the past couple of months, it has become increasingly difficult to find spaces. In fact, it has become impossible.
This problem is not unique to Romero House but has become common practice for all refugee support and housing agencies. They are serving people who, after arriving to Canada in search of safety and protection, are sleeping on the street, in garages or parks, above store fronts, or, if they are lucky, in churches or mosques or with distant relatives, friends of friends or kind strangers they meet in the subway.
Worst-case scenarios are becoming the reality. Romero House recently had a couple come to their organization through a referral from another refugee settlement organization. This organization had housed them for one night on cots in a basement, which they shared with another family in the same situation. This couple had slept in the park the night before. Folks, this is Canada: it is winter and it is cold.
The very real prospect of homelessness is terrifying for anyone. But imagine that this is affecting entire families, including children. These families have fled their homes; they have left war, violence, death threats, torture or other risks to their lives and come to Canada in search of safety, only to arrive to no one to welcome them and nowhere to go. This is the heartbreaking truth of the situation we are all facing.
Long-term solutions will only result from meaningful structural change – the construction of more affordable housing – but that takes time. There is an urgent need to respond now. What organizations like Romero House need immediately is more beds and safe spaces for those at risk of homelessness and or as they await alternative housing options.
We need this emergency response now, even as we continue to work for more accessible and affordable housing for all. Anglicans, Roman Catholics and people of all faith traditions (and none) can join Romero House’s Community Host Program.
If you have a room to spare, for a limited time, Romero House would like to hear from you. Assisted by Romero House staff, who will walk alongside you in helping to offer a space that is welcoming and safe for all parties involved – ensuring police checks, facilitating housing agreements, and offering other forms of support and oversight – you can stand in solidarity with refugees by providing temporary accommodations. For more information on how you can get involved, visit Romero House’s website (https://romerohouse.org/housing) or call 416-763-1303.
Refugees looking for shelter are amongst “the least of these” in our city. They are our neighbours and they are crying for mercy. By welcoming them into our homes, by keeping them off the streets, we not only confirm and make visible the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3.15), we open ourselves to further avenues of God’s revelation in our lives, in our churches, and in our world.