Downtown Eastside residents without citizenship status can’t get welfare, don’t qualify for social housing or most homeless shelters, risk deportation if they go to health clinics or the hospital, and are vulnerable to racist police (and immigration officer) harassment and brutality. A recent ruling by Toronto City Council declaring Toronto a “Sanctuary City” might offer a ray of hope in an otherwise worsening situation for undocumented people in Canada.
Communities in Toronto fought for the city’s official Sanctuary City ruling by developing all the principles of Sanctuary on a community-by-community and service-by-service level for years in advance. Since 2004 health clinics, schools, homeless shelters, women’s centres in Toronto joined a campaign pledging “Don’t ask” about citizenship status and “Don’t tell” immigration officers if they found out someone was undocumented in order to provide necessary services to all residents in need. The official Sanctuary City motion at City Council should help make those grassroots commitments more widespread.
Similar roots for a Sanctuary City movement have been set down in the Downtown Eastside and other neighborhoods in Vancouver. Some homeless shelters offer access under pseudonyms, some health centres accept clients without medical or ID cards, the Carnegie and Women’s Centre serve people equally without ID, and there is an active tradition at the Catholic Worker house in Strathcona and the First United Church of providing protective sanctuary for people facing deportation orders.
With the DTES Local Area Planning Process underway, the DTES seems like the perfect neighbourhood to formally join Toronto in declaring this area sanctuary for undocumented people and, as we have with so many other issues, setting the bar for the rest of the city to follow suit.