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City agrees to physical distancing standards in shelters following lawsuit

Last Updated May 19, 2020 at 4:32 pm EDT

The City of Toronto is taking steps to make sure some of the city’s most vulnerable people can physically distance to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The city is now required to implement two metres between beds and end the use of bunk beds across Toronto’s shelters, respites, and overnight drop-ins.

But advocates for the city’s homeless and Aboriginal communities say the delay in these implementations have been “disastrous.”

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Equality Program Director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says they knew back in March that despite physical distancing measures across the board, there was overcrowding in the shelter system.

“Even between beds, there wasn’t six-feet of space. So the people who needed a place to rest their heads at night had no choice but to sleep in close proximity to many other people,” she tells CityNews. “Something that was so terrifying for a lot of people, that they chose to leave the shelter system and started camping out in different locations across the city.”

A lawsuit was brought forward against the City of Toronto by Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, Aboriginal Legal Services, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, Black Legal Action Centre, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario.

“Since the pandemic began, we have been worried about our community members who use shelters and sleep on the streets,” Christa Big Canoe, Legal Advocacy Director of Aboriginal Legal Services, said in a statement.

Advocates said they took legal action “to protect the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness” across the city.

The focus of the interim settlement was bed spacing in the city’s shelter system and 24-hour respite sites.

“Finally, two months later we have a commitment from the City that shelters will follow the same public health guidelines required everywhere else. That is a positive outcome from this lawsuit,” Christa Big Canoe said.

Some say the delay has cost the community.

“The City’s ten-week delay in implementing these measures has been disastrous and led to hundreds of COVID-19 cases and hundreds more forced to sleep outside in an effort to protect their health,” Greg Cook, Outreach Worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said in a statement Tuesday.

“We feel good that the City government has now agreed to redress its negligence.”

The city is now required to provide shelter to all shelter system clients by making available such beds as is necessary to achieve physical distancing standards across the shelter system.

As well, the city is required to continue transparency about shelter occupancy — posting daily numbers, updated at least three times a week.

“Up until now, although there have been press briefings, there has not really been a public accounting about why the shelters have remained overcrowded, why hotel rooms stayed empty for so long, why more hotel rooms were not obtained,” said Aviv. “Now we’re going to have much more solid and concrete information based on a template that was agreed upon with the city, so that we can in fact monitor their progress.”

Last week the second COVID-19-related death was reported in the shelter system, and outbreaks have been reported at seven of the city’s shelters.

“This humanitarian crisis, should have been prevented and we are going to do everything we can to insist the city hold it to its new commitment to make sure that they do everything they can to stop the spread of COVID in the shelter system and to take care of all Toronto residents,” said Aviv.

In a statement, the City Of Toronto said the settlement “confirms the city’s commitment and ongoing work since March to physical distancing in shelter and respite sites.” Alternate indoor spaces offered to anyone living outside will also meet physical distancing standards.

“The City is pleased to have reached this interim settlement so it can continue to focus its efforts on responding to the health needs of its most vulnerable residents.”