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City of Toronto finally commits to physical distancing standards in key court settlement for city's homeless people

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A crowded shelter. Image: Cathy Crowe

For several years before COVID-19, huge numbers of people, often in coalition, were calling for the City of Toronto to declare homelessness an emergency. They included outreach workers, members of the faith community, harm reduction workers, doctors and nurses. They acted with media releases, media conferences, protests, vigils, marches, articles in newspapers, public letters, petitions and direct action. There was and is massive public support for their actions and demands.

Mayor John Tory notoriously refused to act. So did the province. The federal government's national housing strategy somehow leaped over Toronto, missing it entirely.

Then COVID-19 hit, and, as many have pointed out, it cracked open inequities and made them painfully visible.

This blog has chronicled this story since March 2.

Early on it was apparent that Toronto's medical officer of health was not going to order shelters to ensure the two-metre physical distancing of beds, cots and mats. Even with the city's quasi-promise of hotel rooms for all who need it to ensure physical distancing, many of us knew the writing was on the wall. Homeless people were not being protected by a virus that would be deadly to them. In fact, the only real protection would be one person or family unit per room.

I learned an important lesson in this pandemic: Ask for help.

In March, I pushed out a desperate email to a COVID homelessness and harm-reduction group: "How about some legal entity taking on the failure to protect: no direction to city shelters and other operators around bed spacing, six feet distancing etc? We have 8,000 people in shelters of all sorts, and about 95% have no means to protect people one person per room."

Well, Neighbourhood Legal Services came to the rescue and in no time at all six national, provincial and local legal groups came together in coalition with Sanctuary Toronto to mount a lawsuit that was filed on April 24 against the City of Toronto and the province of Ontario.

In quick time given the circumstances, Superior Court Judge Lorne Sossin was assigned to the case; the legal coalition's witness affidavits were prepared; expert witnesses stepped up and in video call after video call strategy was planned. A court date was set for May 27.

I am more than happy to report that the Toronto has now reached an agreement with the legal coalition that brought the lawsuit and commits to essential and enforceable physical-distancing standards to protect people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. 

The agreement will bring a measure of accountability and public transparency that has been lacking in the city's approach to dealing with the pandemic within the shelter system. The city is now required to provide regular, detailed reports about its efforts and progress in achieving and sustaining physical distancing standards that will surely save lives.  

Jessica Orkin, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners representing the coalition, said:

"Regrettably, The City's commitment comes only after the tragic and preventable deaths of two shelter residents, and over 300 COVID-19 cases in at least 21 sites. Ten weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has finally committed to ensure that Toronto shelters meet minimal public health standards for physical distancing. The coalition will remain vigilant to ensure that the City complies with its obligations under this agreement and is prepared to take further legal steps, if necessary, to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are supported during this pandemic."

It is deplorable that we had to go to court to achieve probably the most repeated and basic public health measure we have heard since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic: physically distance six feet or two metres.

The terms of the agreement are:

  1. The city is required to use best efforts to "achieve without delay and thereafter sustain" two metres between beds and end the use of bunk beds across the city's shelters, respites and overnight drop-ins.  
  2. The city is 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.  
  3. All individuals who received any support services from the city's shelter system since March 11, including those now in encampments who left the shelter system because of fears of COVID-19, are included within the scope of the city's obligations under the settlement. 
  4. The city will report regularly on its progress until it reaches and sustains compliance for two months.  

The agreement was reached between the parties on May 15 and was formalized May 19. In exchange for the city's commitments as contained in the agreement, the coalition agreed to adjourn its injunction motion, which had been rescheduled to be heard by Justice Sossin on June 8, 2020.   

Several of the coalition members speak to the ominous circumstances that led them to take part:

"Since the pandemic began, we have been worried about our community members who use shelters and sleep on the streets. 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, legal advocacy director of Aboriginal Legal Services.

"BLAC became involved in this litigation because, we see every day through our work, the dire levels of poverty in the Black community and the resultant housing insecurity, homelessness and our community's disparate reliance of the shelter system. While we recognize this agreement as step forward, we also see that this issue -- housing insecurity and homelessness -- is part of an even broader systemic issue related to anti-Black racism in the city and province."  -- Ruth Goba, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre.

The final settlement can be found here.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: Cathy Crowe

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