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City finally commits to physical distancing standards in shelters

May 19, 2020

City of Toronto Commits to Essential Physical Distancing Standards to Protect People Experiencing Homelessness From COVID-19

The commitment results from an agreement
reached between parties of the lawsuit

Toronto, ON – May 19, 2020 – The City of Toronto has finally committed to enforceable physical distancing standards across its shelter system that will protect the lives of Toronto’s most vulnerable population during this pandemic crisis. Last month, a coalition of frontline homelessness service providers and human rights groups filed a lawsuit against the City and the Province of Ontario for failing to urgently protect the lives of those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The coalition is pleased to announce that an interim agreement has been reached with the City that will protect the lives of shelter residents but also the health of shelter employees and the public at large.

“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,” says Jessica Orkin, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners representing the coalition. “Ten weeks into the COVID-10 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.”

he City’s approach to dealing with the pandemic crisis 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.

The terms of the agreement are as follows:

  1. The City is required to use best efforts to “achieve without delay and thereafter sustain” 2 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 2 months.

The agreement was reached between the parties last Friday and was formalized this morning. A copy of the public summary of the agreement is available here. In exchange for the City’s commitments as contained in the agreement, the coalition agreed to adjourn its injunction motion, which had been scheduled to be heard by Justice Lorne Sossin of the Superior Court of Justice on June 8, 2020.

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Quotes from the coalition members

“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. We feel good that the City government has now agreed to redress its negligence.” – Greg Cook, Outreach Worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto

“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

“Our goal with this legal action was to protect the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness. The agreement we have reached with the City of Toronto is an enforceable promise to ensure that the lives of those without a permanent home are treated and protected as urgently as other residents of Toronto during this pandemic crisis.” – Kenneth Hale, Director of Advocacy and Legal Services at Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario

“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

“We had to fight hard to win from the City a commitment to take a basic life-saving measure. We will keep fighting: to make sure they uphold this commitment, and to protect the rights of every human being, without discrimination based on housing status, race, disability or otherwise.” – Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Equality Program Director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

“This settlement is a reminder that governments can be responsive. While it is deeply disturbing that it took a lawsuit, we are hopeful that, in concert with people most directly affected and civil society organizations, governments will continue to be so.” – Ryan Peck, Executive Director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario


Practice Areas

Constitutional Law, Public Interest Litigation