Our church has become a temporary shelter for refugees—and it’s not sustainable

“Our church basement is packed with people in sleeping bags lined up wall-to-wall like an army campsite”

For the past two months, Nadine Miller, a director at Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, has helped feed and house over 160 immigrants. “They all deserve the Canadian dream,” she says. (Photography by Chloë Ellingson)

I never expected to take care of so many people. I’m a director at Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, a not-for-profit faith-based organization in Etobicoke, Ontario, with a congregation of 130 people. I joined in 2017 after working at a series of not-for-profits that raised money for communities in need. I come from a family of immigrants; we moved from the Caribbean in 1983 because my parents thought Canada was a land of opportunity. We were lucky because that ended up being true. Back then, Canada set up newcomers with jobs right away; my mother had lined up a gig as a nanny before she’d even landed. 

Immigrants today face a different reality. At Pilgrim Feast Tabernacles, part of our mandate is to support those who need help, and that often includes new immigrants and refugees. Our team of 25 used to organize mass and community events for our congregation: senior luncheons, dinners for the poor, and Christmas parties with an open-door policy for newcomers. But all of that was put on hold six months ago. Last spring, a young man in the church said that his brothers were sleeping on the street; they were in such poor health that they likely would have died outside if we hadn’t taken them in and provided food and shelter. In the months that followed, word got around about our services, and people trickled in for meals every now and then. We soon started cooking for dozens of refugees in the area, sometimes twice a day. Our grocery bills shot up—as did our hours. But that was only the beginning.

Since the government lifted the pandemic-era pause on immigration, many refugees have arrived in Canada. The country welcomed 232,120 immigrants in the first half of 2023, with the goal of accepting 526,360 new permanent residents by the end of the year. The government offers them some services when they arrive, but people are still reaching out to community organizations like ours for support. 

Over the summer, our team met many people who had fallen through the settlement system’s gaps. Since then, we’ve provided temporary shelter for more than 180 refugees and newcomers. Our church basement is packed with people in sleeping bags lined up next to each other, wall-to-wall, like an army campsite. We converted surrounding buildings—including an empty TD Bank and an old strip mall—into hostels. We’re working overtime to rally community members, churchgoers and staff to donate food. It was overwhelming when we saw so many people asking for our services, but we were imbued with a sense of purpose: we could not let these people down when the disregard and indifference our country has shown them is worse than ever.

Canada benefits from its welcoming image, but our system for asylum seekers and immigrants is severely broken. I’ve worked in not-for-profits for most of my life, and our country’s current situation is the direst I’ve ever seen it. Today, there are still jobs in Canada for newcomers, but no proper pathways for health care or housing. Without a permanent address, new Canadians can’t open a bank account or build their credit score, which is necessary in Canada’s credit-based system. Although the Interim Housing Assistance Program grants refugees an allowance to help cover rent, the low vacancy rate and rising cost of rent hampers the program’s efforts. As a result, our organization has helped some refugees with food and paperwork for as long as nine months because they’re too tangled in red tape to get on their feet. 

What my team is doing is not sustainable. We can’t house everybody, so people sleep outside, near restaurants and local businesses. We pay a public gym to allow the refugees to shower there, and we’ve taken over the kitchen of an out-of-service restaurant to prepare large meals. Between the rent that our organization pays for several buildings, the food we purchase and the supplies we provide, like toiletries and cleaning wares, our operation costs $15,000 per day. (In regular times, to operate our church, it barely cost $10,000 per month.) 

Asylum-seekers and refugees sleep on mattresses or sleeping bags in the church basement and nearby buildings.

The church is now $250,000 in debt, and many staff members—even my own siblings—have dipped into their own lines of credit to help. If nothing changes, I expect the church’s debt to climb by at least $100,000 per month. We don’t have sufficient space, time or resources. We can’t even use our own church anymore for services because there isn’t any room. The nearby Rexdale Alliance Church team graciously lets us use their facilities instead. 

It breaks my heart to see these refugees being neglected day after day: they came to Canada to escape unrest, fleeing from war-torn Ukraine or countries like Uganda and Nigeria that criminalize being LGBTQ+. Nobody runs from a good situation. One woman left her home and a United Nations job after her village was bombed by terrorists. We met a pastor whose church was burned down in Ethiopia, a man whose pregnant wife was killed during armed conflict in Nigeria, and a gay woman from Uganda who was raped by a group of men and then asked if she had changed her sexuality yet. Their stories are heart-wrenching, and we are still trying to connect them with mental health resources and support.

In late August, another 350 refugees came to us independently from Toronto’s shelters after hearing about us on the news. We had no choice but to send them back to the city because we didn’t have any space left. I felt defeated. Many will end up in homeless shelters, and I cannot imagine what awaits them there. I know they need help: they are growing tired and sick as the weeks go by. 

These refugees have high blood pressure, eye infections, ear infections, nasal congestion and urinary tract infections. Women who are eight months pregnant have to sleep on the streets. Some experience anxiety attacks; others have grown completely apathetic. One woman had a severe blood pressure issue, so we took her to the hospital. They sent her back because she didn’t have a health card or money. When we went to a community clinic, the doctors realized she needed acute care right away, which saved her life. Another woman was admitted to a Toronto hospital for a triple bypass surgery, and then was discharged almost immediately afterward because she also didn’t have a health card.

It’s not just the refugees who are struggling. I’ve started referring to my staff as volunteers because they’re working far more hours than they’re paid for. The mental toll is crushing: they’ve had emotional breakdowns at work, and some fear coming home to an eviction notice because they’re spending their rent money on other people’s food and supplies. The normalcy in their lives is gone, just as it is in mine. I’m tired and sad, and I cry at night thinking about the people in our care. When I look at them, I see myself and my parents. 

The path forward remains unclear. To sustain our operations, we need more money, but other charities haven’t stepped up with donations or financial help. The general public became aware of our operations over two months ago, when our church started telling the media that all levels of government need to do more to help. Toronto mayor Olivia Chow said on TV that the city was going to give $50,000 to three churches, including ours, but we have yet to see that money. I understand there are protocols to follow, but government officials must understand the urgency of our situation. Stories like these make me wonder if our municipal, provincial and federal policymakers are letting this happen because they are also at capacity, or because they simply do not care. 

I don’t know how much longer my staff and I can keep this up. How much debt can we incur before we reach our breaking point? All we want is to work with Canada’s leadership to provide sustainable solutions for the people we help. I am hopeful that things will improve, but first, we need our governments to create better pathways with more affordable housing and health care for newcomers. I find endless purpose in what I do, but churches like ours are not equipped to support so many people. If I could take them into my own home, I would, but it’s not just up to me—or my team—to step up. It’s up to our country. 

—As told to Alex Cyr

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