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Homeless advocates take City of Toronto back to court over shelter system

Last Updated Jul 6, 2020 at 12:30 pm EDT

City of Toronto workers took down several homeless camps downtown on May 15, 2020. (Bryan Carey/CityNews Toronto)

A group of advocates for the homeless is taking the City of Toronto back to court for allegedly not keeping its end of a deal to ensure the health and safety of shelter residents and those living on the street.

A drop-in centre and other human rights organizations allege in a notice of motion filed in the Superior Court of Justice that the city has not placed all beds in the shelter system two metres apart, still offers bunk beds, and that not enough beds are available to those in need.

“We believe the city has not kept their side of the settlement,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto.

“There’s beds closer than two metres, one person called in for a bed and were offered a bunk bed and there are numerous situations, especially for women, who have not been able to get a bed.”

The group originally brought the legal action in late April seeking an injunction to force the city’s 75 shelters to follow physical distancing rules.

It alleged the city violated shelter residents’ Charter of Rights and Freedoms and breached the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The suit had effectively been put on hold after the city agreed to ensure physical distancing in shelters and to provide beds to those in need.

But the group now says the city has not held up its end of the bargain, and as a result, the legal action must resume.

As part of the deal, the city also agreed to provide a bed for anyone who had used the shelter system since March 11, even if they left a shelter for any reason.

The suit alleges shelter beds have become very difficult to find during the pandemic.

“To the extent that the city has achieved compliance with physical distancing standards within the sites making up the shelter system, this compliance has been achieved via a reduction in the overall capacity of the shelter system, as compared to the capacity of the shelter system prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the suit alleges.

The city said it is working on a response to the allegations.

Since the pandemic began, 625 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in cases linked to shelter outbreaks, according to city data. Four of those people have died.

Tents and encampments have popped up throughout the city during the pandemic as many left shelters due to fears of contracting COVID-19.

There are dozens of tents at a park next to Sanctuary.

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary, wrote in an affidavit filed in court that there have been a few violent incidents in the encampment at Hislop Park.

In one incident on June 19, he said a woman living in a tent told him she had been sexually assaulted. That same man allegedly lit another tent on fire two days later.

“It was evident to me that the people whose tent had burned down, the woman reporting the sexual assault, and several other individuals were in emotional crisis,” Johnson Hatlem wrote.

“I concluded that it was important to secure indoor beds for these individuals for that night.”

He said he worked with a city manager to help find shelter beds, but there were none.

Johnson Hatlem said he then paid for two nights for rooms at a boarding house.

The city has been moving hundreds out of shelters into hotels and apartments during the pandemic in an effort to give people their own room and bed.