How to Mitigate the Asylum Seeker Housing Crisis? Start with Better Use of Data

What’s peculiar is how small a part data has played in the conversation.

April 11, 2024
Homelessness plagues the city of Toronto and touches the lives of many people. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via REUTERS)

On January 31, 2024, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller announced that the federal government will dedicate more than $362 million to support the housing of asylum seekers across Canada. This news, which should have come as a relief to the nation’s provinces and core cities, as they grapple with record numbers of asylum claimants and slow processing times, was instead met with collective grumbling. “We are disappointed by [this] announcement,” wrote David Piccini, Ontario minister of labour, immigration, training and skills development, and Paul Calandra, Ontario minister of municipal affairs and housing, in a joint statement. “The federal government needs to take responsibility for the crisis they created and provide the necessary funding to address it.”

Why the dissatisfaction? This measure was another in a series of hurried touch-and-go solutions from the federal government as it attempts to respond to the housing crisis. And much like previous measures, it is the equivalent of slapping a Band-Aid on an open wound. The funding is not robust enough to bring impactful change in a dilapidated newcomer housing regime. As such, it’s no substitute for the policy changes necessary to tackle this problem long term. The problem cries out for greater collaboration and communication — through data — of the housing needs in major cities.

First, let’s take a closer look at the new funding package. It’s part of the federal Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), launched in 2017 by the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The program provides financial support for refugees and asylum seekers by reimbursing provinces and municipalities for housing, transportation and other “indirect” costs incurred for up to one year following their arrival to Canada. Funding amounts for each region of Canada are determined, in part, by a formula that considers the daily cost of housing and the average number of days spent by newcomers in temporary accommodations.

Looking to regions with the largest share of asylum claimants, approximately 30 percent ($100 million) of the funding package announced in January is set to go to Quebec — well below the $470 million requested by Premier François Legault in January, and nowhere near the $1 billion the province is currently seeking. Although it was revealed shortly after Miller’s press conference that Toronto’s share will total $143 million, Mayor Olivia Chow and Premier Doug Ford have previously called on federal legislators to invest in durable solutions, arguing that stopgap funding packages only go so far.

There is no open-source centralized database with live numbers of shelter beds, open-door churches, federally funded hotels or other housing facilities to gauge the number of asylum seekers who request support on a day-to-day basis.

What’s peculiar, when observing this long-standing nationwide crisis, is how small a part data has played in the conversation. At this time, for example, there is no open-source centralized database with live numbers of shelter beds, open-door churches, federally funded hotels or other housing facilities to gauge the number of asylum seekers who request support on a day-to-day basis. Nor is there a virtual space with this information, or funding records or updated statistics on asylum seekers in one place, whereby policy makers could make sense of what each region in the country faces.

While separate, regionally based portals housing this data do exist, there is not yet a smooth, interconnected system in place that homogenizes data across groups, provinces and territories nationwide. Accessing reports from IRCC, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and Infrastructure Canada can lead us in the right direction. However, these records do not speak to the specificities observed by local communities that supply the housing. And the numbers are published infrequently.

The current disjointed system has led to situations where community activists, mayors and premiers must collate and convey the numbers to the federal government themselves, repeatedly pleading for additional funds as the situation worsens. This process squanders precious time that would be better spent engaging in the design and implementation of concrete, data-backed solutions.

A new federal housing database could be tailored to meet contrasting community needs and abilities. Whether it’s available through an app, an online portal or a hybridized model compatible across devices, open-sourced structured data on a large scale could be the beginning of the answer. Portions of IHAP funding should therefore be designated toward the development, promotion and maintenance of such a database for use by those providing the housing, as well as policy makers, researchers and the wider community.

A shared nationwide resource would prove invaluable in a system in which numbers are in a constant state of flux, transforming the needs of communities by the day. It would facilitate open — rather than jagged — dialogue, generate a better understanding of the allocation of funds for each region and bring attention to smaller municipalities that are less in the public eye but nevertheless straining due to insufficient resources. Above all, it has the potential to foster an environment that reduces the numbers of both asylum seekers and Canadians living and, to the horror of communities, dying on the streets.

This is more feasible than it may seem at first glance: Canada already has the digital infrastructure in place to launch such an initiative and a stated dedication to transparent policy making through data sharing. What’s more, there is a clear incentive for regional leaders and their communities to take part, if it means cohesive, data-driven reform of asylum seeker housing policy down the line.

In short, a centralized and easily accessible space for data sharing on asylum seeker housing across Canada could embolden cooperation among various levels of government, direct funds to where they’re most urgently needed, and establish pathways for the development of sound policy through enhanced and comprehensive record keeping over time. Canada has an opportunity to be a marked innovator in this space. This opportunity should be seized, without delay.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Reanne Cayenne is research coordinator at CIGI, where she oversees the operations and research output of the Digital Policy Hub program.