Vancouver behind in housing Syrian refugees

April 22, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

High housing prices have meant Syrian refugees in Metro Vancouver have had a harder time finding permanent housing than those who were settled elsewhere in Canada, with some waiting close to four months.

Nationally, more than 90 per cent of government-assisted Syrian refugees have found permanent housing, and in some cities, such as Ottawa, all have been housed.

In Metro Vancouver, there are 29 Syrian families still in temporary housing, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Three of those families arrived in late December, and one has been shuffled between three temporary housing sites over that time period.

The Immigrant Services Society has found homes for 13 of the remaining families, including two of the three who have been here since December. They will be moving in the next 10 days, Friesen said, leaving 16 families still to house.

The cost of housing coupled with large family sizes — often in excess of six people — has made housing refugee families more of a challenge in Vancouver and Toronto than in other parts of the country, especially Alberta, where an economic downturn has depressed housing prices, Friesen said.

Victoria faces a similar challenge, with about 25 Syrian families in that city in need of permanent housing. Some of the refugees who initially arrived in Victoria have gone farther afield, to the Duncan area, in search of affordable housing.

In the past month, three of the Syrian families who came first to Vancouver were relocated to Vernon, Penticton and Summerland.

“This is creating new and emerging communities in those areas,” Friesen said.

Syrian families have also been settled in Abbotsford, Kelowna, Vernon, Kamloops, Nanaimo and Prince George in recent months, which is the first time government-assisted refugees to B.C. have gone outside Metro Vancouver. The B.C. government has funded five community groups, including MOSAIC in Metro Vancouver and DIVERSEcity Community Resources in the Fraser Valley, to put the necessary supports in place in some of those communities.

While arrivals have slowed in recent weeks and the Immigrant Services Society has closed six of the 10 hotel and apartment sites it used for temporary accommodation earlier this year, Friesen said refugee settlement groups throughout the city are gearing up for still more new arrivals later this year. Victoria and Ottawa committed to resettling 3,300 government-assisted Syrian refugees in the province, which means there are about 1,500 still to come this year.

This is a challenge because B.C. will receive less funding for English language classes and immigrant settlement due to a formula that ties federal funding to the number of new immigrants a province receives relative to others in previous years. Because B.C.’s permanent resident numbers have dropped, it gets a smaller piece of the federal pie.

“We have way more people with multiple needs. So a number of agencies including our own have been doing some restructuring, layoffs and also bringing on additional Arabic-speaking staff,” Friesen said.

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