Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Many refugees, few places for them to stay

Winnipeg sees record number of newcomers this summer

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It's been a record summer for refugee arrivals in Winnipeg, say sponsors and settlement agencies scrambling to find accommodations for them.

"We are full to capacity at Welcome Place," said Rita Chahal, executive director of Manitoba's largest government-assisted refugee-resettlement agency.

Housing shortages and low vacancy rates in Winnipeg are putting a huge strain on the agency's ability to provide adequate housing for these newcomers who are most vulnerable, she said.

"We've had to put a few people in a hotel," said Chahal.

Welcome Place received a record number of government-assisted arrivals in June (65) and July (72), said Chahal.

Canada's largest private sponsor of refugees, Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, has also reported a record number of arrivals this year -- averaging about 56 a month.

'People are staying longer and can't transition out into the community'

-- Dorota Blumczynska, executive director, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba

Welcome Place's building on Bannatyne Avenue has 30 units that can house up to 120 people short-term until they find permanent homes.

"It's only temporary," said Laxman Bhujel.

His wife, Sukhamina Rai, eight-year-old daughter, Daya Kumari, and seven-month-old son, Ryan, are staying in a sweltering bachelor unit on the fourth floor of Welcome Place with no fan and one small window. They're not complaining.

Until they arrived in Winnipeg July 2, the Bhutanese man and his family had been living in a Nepalese refugee camp in a bamboo hut. There, they lived in constant fear of fire, thieves and deadly wild elephants, said Bhujel.

"In 2013, a lady was killed by an elephant." On Sept. 1, they'll move into a two-bedroom apartment on Ross Avenue the housing counsellor at Welcome Place found for them. "Our only fear is culture shock," Bhujel said.

Welcome Place knows how many refugees to expect in a year, but when a whole bunch show up at once, it's a challenge, said Chahal. "Some families are large.

The larger families are harder to place," she said.

Some newcomers have special needs and some require wheelchair access, said Chahal. "Many of our arrivals have major health issues that require additional supports," she said. "Some community members come to our rescue and are taking some of the clients."

The problem isn't a lack of goodwill but rather a lack of a national housing strategy, said the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba -- that operates transitional housing complex in downtown Winnipeg.

"It speaks to the wider housing crisis," said Dorota Blumczynska. "Welcome Place is temporary housing, and IRCOM is the next stage of housing but there is nowhere to move on to."

IRCOM provides transitional housing to newcomers for up to three years.

"People are staying longer and can't transition out into the community," Blumczynska said.

The federal government controls the number of newcomers into Canada but leaves housing up to the provinces, said Blumczynska.

"It's difficult if the government is saying 'We're bringing 100,000 refugees but absolve ourselves of the responsibility for their housing needs.' "

The federal government has helped fund some newcomer housing projects but has no long-term plan, she said.

"It's been left in the hands of the provinces to manage the supply of housing and the upkeep of housing without a national strategy for housing," Blumczynska said.

IRCOM is waiting for the completion of the 60-unit refurbishment of a building on Isabel Street. The project, with funding from the federal and provincial governments, was first announced in December 2012 and was to have been completed by December 2013.

The Winnipeg contractor was fired from the $14.7-million project only months before it was to be completed. The contractor is now suing Manitoba Housing for close to $6 million.

Its opening has been delayed for up to another 12 months, said Blumczynska.

"It's a wonderful project but it doesn't begin to meet the extent of the need."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2014 B5

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