Theresa Makumi (r) protesting in downtown Toronto. Photo by Evy Kwong.
For decades, Theresa Makumi hid who she was growing up in Kenya—one of many African nations where same-sex marriage is not only illegal, but where being queer can lead to persecution and violence. Now the nation is closer to implementing a new law that could “kick LGBTQ people out of the country,” or even sentence them to capital punishment in some cases.
One day back in February, the 38-year-old was caught with her partner in their home after neighbours burst through her door. From there, she was ostracized in her village, facing threats from the people she grew up with who told her they would contact the police to have her and her partner imprisoned for up to 10 years.“You either have to be an outcast (or) you have to be stoned to death,” Makumi told VICE News, referencing the fear of vigilante violence. “At times, there are some cultures where you have to be flogged naked around the village. You have to be humiliated and rejected.”Makumi decided to run, and fled to Canada as an asylum seeker, a country where she felt she could be free to live her life and find a brighter future. Instead, she was met with weeks of “trauma”, battling blistering Canadian winters at -20C as she waited outside the intake centre without a winter jacket. She didn’t know anyone in Canada, and struggled to use the public transit system to visit shelters, and at times, relied on sleeping in buildings. Thankfully, this March, she was able to find a place to stay that week at a publicly-funded shelter. But that semi-happy ending isn’t the story for other asylum seekers escaping violence and death threats from some African nations. In fact, they have no choice but to sleep on the streets.In the past month, dozens of asylum seekers from some of Africa’s strictest anti-LGBTQ countries have been sleeping on the sidewalks outside 129 Peter Street, Toronto’s shelter in-take centre, after being told that all shelters are currently full. This is throughout one of Toronto’s most extreme weather summers that includes toxic air quality from wildfires as well as torrential downpours and stifling heat.
Some in the asylum camp have used up all their savings on food for their children, and now solely rely on basic necessities from grassroots advocates and volunteers crowdfunding for resources.“I have seen a man with trench foot. This is the year 2023, and we have people here with diseases that we saw in the trenches of World War I, all because people are unable to stay dry,” said Diana Chan McNally, a local advocate who, along with others, crowdfunded over $40,000 in support of the asylum seekers.“To see people fleeing traumatic situations, having their human rights violated so egregiously, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”In 2023, the City of Toronto went through massive changes–including a historic number of residents finding themselves homeless. Each week, hundreds of people line up at the food bank. This year, the city also finally officially recognized homelessness as an emergency–something advocates and experts have been fighting for for years in hopes that all levels of governments will finally pay attention.But while there is hope a recent change in mayoral leadership from the conservative John Tory to the longtime progressive Olivia Chow will create more affordable housing, the crisis had months to become more dire for African asylum seekers. Each day, more families found themselves sleeping on the concrete after being told by city staff that there was no room or money to put a roof over their heads as the city continues to house a record 9,000 people in shelters each night.
With their hands tied, the city has pressured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to step in, asking for $157 million to cover the costs to house these asylum seekers, as well as “support on logistics” and “access to more spaces and shelter,” after they say the federal government suddenly ended their funding for 2023 and 2024, a City of Toronto spokesperson told VICE News in an email. In response, the federal government told VICE News earlier this week that they have already funded hundreds of millions to the City of Toronto for emergency shelters, and that due to national and international law, asylum seekers, unlike refugees who are sponsored or sought out by the country for work, must have their claims approved. Many of the asylum seekers who have slept outside for weeks are still waiting for the status of their claims, which could take longer than a month depending on individual investigations.On Tuesday, Trudeau's government announced an additional $210 million to fund interim housing for asylum seekers, with $97 million of that going to directly address the crisis in downtown Toronto.But before this announcement, the fighting between levels of government and lack of solution left asylum seekers suffering on the streets, and facing illness. “Where I come from in Uganda, we have the dictatorship. No one would want to live there,” a homeless asylum seeker who goes by Mr. Asuman said. “But I’m feeling so sad… I sleep on the street. It rains. We expected to be welcomed.”
Canada has brought in and housed over 160,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war, something the federal government says was possible after implementing a temporary emergency program for refugees from Ukraine, which is different from the immigration process for asylum seekers. But advocates of the camp called this is an example of anti-Black racism in a press conference last week.“Never have I seen refugees ever used as pawns,” said Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director at Sojourn House emergency shelter. “My taxes pay for a Department of Emergency management. Is this not an emergency?”Whether true or not, Canada has long had a reputation as a haven for refugees and asylum seekers to start anew. It’s why so many of these African asylum seekers chose the country, a place where they could feel free to be themselves, especially for queer folk who are seeing a rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation and hate in the United States.“Where I’m from, we’re not allowed to express ourselves. They say love is love but we’re discriminated against and in danger,” Kevin, a queer homeless asylum seeker, told VICE News. “I did my research and found that Canada would be a place that would accept people like us. That’s why I chose Canada and not any other country.”VICE News is using a pseudonym for the asylum seeker as his claims are still being processed and he fears retaliation from back home.For weeks, Kevin has been sleeping on the ground at the camp, praying everyday that things will change and the turbulence that’s followed him at home will finally see some reprieve.
“I want to live freely. Interact with other people and get to at least build myself and my life again,” he told VICE News. That’s a similar story for Marcel Tabai Yusuf, 24, who escaped Nigeria for Canada in December due to religious persecution, even leaving his mother behind. But after crashing at people’s homes, Yusuf found himself homeless during the cold Canadian winter. Yusuf also suffers from sickle cell disease, and in his six months in Toronto, has visited the hospital at least six times, including the day before VICE News interviewed him.“I was rushed to the hospital in the morning yesterday. Most times I can’t even afford my medications anymore,” he said. After living on the streets alone, he’s convened with his brothers, sisters, and folks outside the building, relying on the community to drop off clothing, food, water, and tents for survival. Despite his health conditions, Yusuf says he’s going to fight for justice until the end, and would be willing to die here if it meant not returning back to Nigeria. “Going home is not an option. That would instantly kill my mom,” he told VICE News. “I’d rather appeal to the (Canadian) government that I should be killed and my organs donated to people who needed it than going back home.”While the $97 million is a welcome sign for those who have slept outside for up to a month, and the advocates that have fought for them, there are fears that it simply isn’t enough. With more restrictive laws being enacted across Africa, more asylum seekers are expected to make their journey to Canada as many cities across the country face a housing and shelter crunch. “Some people who have been here for two weeks, they are traumatized. Their dreams are shattered,” Makumi said. “So if you could just help us, just help us. We shall contribute to this country.