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Roofs for Refugees:
Increasing housing options for newcomers

Tara Matar, Alison Thompson and Olivia Tran created the Ottawa pilot project of Roofs for Refugees.

News that Ottawa requested a slowdown in the flow of refugees arriving from Syria has sparked a strong reaction in recent weeks. Had the city overestimated how many refugees we could absorb? Were local agencies unable to cope? Were we now closing our doors to refugees?

 The answer to all of the above is "No".

 The slowdown was only related to government-assisted refugees (GARs), and had little to do with overall resettlement capacity. It was to enable the Catholic Centre for Immigrants — the agency contracted by the federal government to process the arrival of GARs — to grapple with the single biggest challenge in resettling the thousands of Syrians being brought to Canada by the federal government: housing.

 There simply aren't very many apartments and houses available at rents that refugees, or anyone else living on a low income, can afford. Refugees aren't eligible for social housing for their first year in Canada, after which they can put their name on a very long waiting list. The shortage of affordable housing means newcomers are spending longer than normal in temporary reception centres, leaving little room for the newest arrivals.

 Three motivated and inspiring women set out to help solve this problem.

 Olivia Tran, Alison Thompson and Tara Matar recently launched a new service called Roofs for Refugees, with the help of Catholic Centre for Immigrants and Refugee 613. An offshoot of the international organization Refugees Welcome, www.roofs4refugees.ca as an online platform for landlords and homeowners to list their apartments, houses or rooms for rent by newcomers. Members of the Roofs for Refugees team of trained volunteers then screen the offers, conduct site visits and generate listings to help match newcomers to permanent housing.

 The team behind Roofs for Refugees hopes to roll out the service across Canada in the near future. For now, the Ottawa operation is a pilot project driven by three young women with interests that overlap with the resettlement effort. Olivia’s professional background is in public policy and international development. Tara’s academic background is in international business. Her project management skills from her experience in the tech sector have been a true asset to the team. Alison has a background in public health and refugee resettlement. Her ability to develop project proposals, from experience doing case work, has been valuable in creating partnerships between Roofs for Refugees and local agencies.

 The three women also a share a common passion for refugee issues, stemming from their own personal histories. Tara is half Jordanian, half Syrian and was born and raised in the Middle East. Alison recently moved to Ottawa from Jordan, where she was involved in projects that addressed the refugee crisis. Olivia is the daughter of Vietnamese “Boat People”, and felt a strong personal motivation to get involved. During an appearance on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning, Olivia said that “when this refugee crisis appeared, I knew that I had to do something to give back for myself and for my family."

 The team believes that landlords and homeowners can play an instrumental role in solving the current housing problem.

 “The global refugee crisis is huge right now, and the Catholic Centre for Immigrants is having a difficult time managing the influx of new arrivals because of the challenge of getting current refugees out of reception centres and into permanent homes. They have exhausted all avenues and are now in the position to appeal to the public for help. That’s where Roofs for Refugees comes in, as a way to facilitate the process,” says Olivia.  

 The challenge for sponsors and settlement agencies in finding adequate housing has been made more difficult by the average family size of the new arrivals. Most refugee families currently in CCI’s reception centres are made up of more than 5 people, creating a high demand for rentals with two or more bedrooms.

 Since launching on Jan. 22, R4R has received dozens of offers and a high level of interest from the public. However, “as much as we really appreciate all of the offers we have received, and they are fantastic, we have been noticing that the prices are still quite high," says Olivia. "Rents are still being offered at the market rate or just barely below.”

 The R4R team points out that the modest housing allowance refugees receive from the government or their sponsors prevents many of them from paying full market rent. The allowance is close to social assistance rates and depends on the size of the family, so landlords are encouraged to be open to negotiating rental amounts.

 Finding a home is a critical step for refugees. Where refugees find housing determines where the children will enrol in school, where the family will go for language classes and where they will be able to sign up for community support services. Many refugee children have already been out of school for an extended period of time, and the longer they spend in reception centres only prolongs their inability to begin their new lives in Ottawa.

This is where the Roofs for Refugees portal comes in.

“That house that’s been sitting empty since your tenant or your uncle moved out? Tell us about it,” says Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. “We have families who would love to call those places home.”

If you have an extra rental unit, we want to hear from you! It could mean the beginning of a new life for newcomers ready to make Ottawa their permanent home. To find out more, or to submit available space, please visit www.roofs4refugees.ca. Or share this link with your networks to spread the word!