Niagara Falls faces ‘limits’ in accommodating influx of asylum seekers, mayor says
It started last summer at 87, grew to 300 and most recently shot up to about 2,000 hotel rooms used in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to house Quebec asylum seekers who were sent there.
And with a total of nearly 3,000 migrants relocated since July, the city’s municipal services are feeling the strain on their already stretched resources to meet the needs of this sudden influx of people.
“was try to be good Canadians and do what we always do, which is always to help. But everything we can do physically has limits,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati.
“It’s started to impact our community in many ways.”
While tensions have simmered in Quebec over tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have entered Canada on foot at the unofficial Roxham Road crossing, about 5,500 migrants have been bussed into border towns in Ontario, including Niagara Falls, Windsor and Cornwall.
With resources strained and the tourism season approaching, Niagara Falls is left wondering what happens next.
40,000 people rely on tourism
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it began transferring migrants arriving in Quebec to Ontario last July when Quebec’s housing system — and hotels rented by IRCC — were reaching capacity.
In a statement to CBC News, IRCC said 2,841 people had been relocated to Niagara Falls as of February 13.
There is no official breakdown of where all migrants are from, but home countries include Haiti and Colombia, with people speaking French, Spanish and Haitian Creole.
As of February 19, 2023, 951 hotel rooms were occupied by asylum seekers in Niagara Falls, IRCC said, tapering from the top.
However, it’s unclear when that number might rise again and what impact that might have on the community and its services, especially as some of the hotels are in the heart of the tourist district.
Meanwhile, Diodati has expressed some concerns to Immigration Secretary Sean Fraser about the upcoming tourist season.
“We have 40,000 people in Niagara Falls who are counting on tourism to feed their families, pay their rent, pay their mortgages,” he said.
Although the government pays for the hotels to house the asylum seekers, tourists who would normally pay for those rooms also eat at the restaurants and visit the sights.
“There’s a much, much bigger multiplier. That is the difference. It’s all the mom and pop operators, the t-shirt people, the fudge making people. Those are the people who won’t benefit because the asylum seekers don’t spend money in those places,” Diodati said.
“So I was just trying to show it [Fraser] Some things that are obvious to us but maybe not so obvious to the service.
Homeless people in the city ‘don’t stay in the hotels’
Although Niagara Falls is the country’s top tourist destination, hosting millions of visitors year-round, the population is relatively small at 95,000.
Residents expressed mixed views about the role their city needed to play, and some complained that the government should focus its resources on its residents.
“Where are our homeless people?” said Bob Boyle. “You certainly don’t stay in the hotels, do you?”
Others, on the other hand, saw their city as having a duty to help asylum seekers.
“You must have somewhere to stay. I think that has to be done in the meantime,” said Eileen Halbert. “These people are desperate. We live here, we can shop, we have stuff. They really don’t have anything.”
Diodati said he’s heard from some residents who often start the conversation with “I’m not complaining, but” and then talk about how they don’t get as much support as asylum seekers.
He said it was no surprise that the government chose Niagara Falls, with its large hotel inventory, as the destination for the asylum seekers. The government pays for the rooms but could not disclose rental details “due to third-party confidentiality.”
However, Diodati said aid organizations are feeling the pressure as demand for services such as food banks and other forms of social assistance surges.
Set up classrooms in gyms
Schools will also have to set up classrooms in their gymnasiums or libraries to cope with the extra students.
“A social safety net system … is not meant to be about a dime,” said Deanna D’Elia, general manager at Niagara Employment & Immigrant Services YMCA.
Her organization offers language testing, helps newcomers enroll their children in school, offers career assessments, and helps with access to other community resources.
“I’ve been in the social services field for about 30 years, and it’s had its ups and downs,” she said. “The individual requirements will increase. Certainly I haven’t seen 2,000 in my day [new arrivals] in a period of seven months.
“I think this current situation of an additional influx … finding its way into Niagara has just shed a light on a delivery system that was already quite vulnerable in terms of capacity.”
Pam Sharp, executive director of Project Share, a Niagara Falls-based organization that provides emergency food and relief services, said they face the challenge of meeting increased needs with the same level of support and resources.
“Of course that will overwhelm us.”
Their numbers have grown exponentially, with a huge spike in December.
“These are not just Christmas programs special, but all of our programs and services. We’ve seen 85 percent more people access it,” Sharp said.
“In my 11 years at Project Share, I’ve never seen numbers like this.”
One of the biggest problems was trying to find affordable housing for asylum seekers, she said.
“Our city has declared a housing crisis. As such, there really isn’t a large stock of affordable housing at the moment. And the waiting list for regional housing in Niagara is years long. So that is a big challenge at the moment.”
Helped over 1,000 children
As for the children, D’Elia said her organization has helped over 1,000 children and youth get into the local school system.
About 300 elementary school students have joined their schools, according to the Niagara District School Board, which means additional staff for increased enrollment as well as multilingual coaches to assist with language, translations and the overall transition.
Sharp said their back-to-school program provided new backpacks, new school supplies, healthy kids’ snacks and new running shoes for back-to-schoolers.
“We’ve seen our back-to-school programs nearly double in number this year compared to last year,” she said.
Diodati said the short-term solution to easing the pressure is certainly more government funding. But most importantly, he said, they need to know the government’s overall plan to deal with this influx of asylum seekers “so that we can work towards that”.
And he asked if, with the tourist season just months away, the government would be willing to pay rents for hotel rooms that would rise “significantly higher”.
“Do you want to pay it and will you pay it? And do we have the capacity for them? We might not because I can tell you we are full on the weekends in the summer so lots of choice.
“That’s why I say… ‘So what’s your plan?’ I haven’t heard what the plan is.”