Toronto must defend people experiencing homelessness

The issue

The crisis of homelessness in Toronto is decades old – and recent actions taken by the Province of Ontario and City of Toronto to address the novel corona virus have unfortunately made matters worse. 

The overcrowded conditions in Toronto’s homeless facilities have created a humanitarian crisis that threatens the many vulnerable people who use these spaces, along with the shelters’ staff and volunteers, and the city’s broader neighbourhoods and communities.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we are deeply concerned that the City continues to operate and oversee shelters that do not adhere to physical distancing standards. The City’s own Shelter and Respite Standards require spacing between beds of only 2.5 feet – well under the 6 feet requirement being enforced during this time.

The City is endangering those who use the shelter system. Hundreds of individuals have set up tents and encampments and are living in the cold outdoors, rather than risk going into crowded shelter spaces that increase their chances of exposure to the virus. Sadly, these individuals’ fears are justified: hundreds of people in the shelter system have contracted COVID.

Not only are homeless populations being exposed to conditions that violate public health advisories, the closure of many businesses, public works and facilities, have disproportionately affected shelter users. The closures, combined with restrictions on outdoor activities and gatherings, have limited such relief as was formerly provided by private, charitable, and public sectors. Adequate sanitation and shelter, food security, public health screening and other health care services are necessities of life that are even more critical during this pandemic.

In many provinces, instead of being provided with a safe space to self-isolate, homeless populations are also being fined under emergency orders, despite extremely difficult circumstances.

Our recent work

2020 litigation

Protecting the most vulnerable and homeless communities in Canada especially during COVID-19 is an urgent matter.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 among homeless communities, on March 29th, CCLA wrote to Toronto’s Mayor and Council to demand the city immediately create appropriate physical distancing and safe accommodation for people without homes. On April 20th CCLA joined forces with several other organizations, sending another letter to the City, and ultimately filing a constitutional and human rights challenge in court.

We are arguing that the City is operating its shelter system and maintaining Standards that are discriminatory and violate the right to life and security of the person of shelter residents under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Calls from public health and elected officials to ‘stay home’ and self-isolate have demonstrated the importance of safe shelter as a matter of public health. Obviously, self-isolating is impossible without adequate shelter.

The slow pace at which the City is acting has led to a dangerous situation in which hundreds of people experiencing homelessness have contracted, or are at an immediate risk for contracting COVID-19.

CCLA is fighting for appropriate accommodation for those experiencing homelessness and against the city’s violations of individuals’ Charter rights including the right to life, security of the person, and equality.

Our coalition partners are Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, Aboriginal Legal Services, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, Black Legal Action Centre, and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario.

We need immediate action to ensure as many people without homes can survive the pandemic.

UPDATES

October 15, 2020 – The Ontario Superior Court ruled that the City of Toronto failed to comply with a settlement agreement it had signed with our coalition, had not created physical distancing between beds, nor had made best efforts to do so.

Justice Sossin confirmed in his judgment that “any failure by the City to take all reasonable steps to meet physical distancing standard in congregate shelter settings heightens an already significant risk of the spread of COVID-19 to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

The Court was critical of the City’s interpretation of physical distancing requirements, as these were decided upon “without the benefit of public health guidance”. It ordered the City to obtain such guidance and to share the results with the coalition that started the legal challenge. The decision also requires the City to resume its regular reporting to the coalition about its progress in achieving physical distancing in shelters.

“It is clear from the court decision that the City needs to do a better job protecting people in shelters from COVID-19 transmission,” said Fareeda Adam of the Black Legal Action Centre. “651 people who use shelters have contracted COVID- 19 and four people have died. We know that this virus disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, as well as people living with disabilities, and these communities are also overrepresented amongst shelter residents.”

“The Court’s decision confirms the Coalition’s position that the City has not done enough to reduce the risks of COVID transmission within Toronto’s shelter system, and that the City’s assertion of compliance with physical distancing standards was premature,” said Jessica Orkin, legal counsel to the applicants. “Justice Sossin’s judgment will ensure that going forward, decisions about physical distancing within the shelter system are based upon evidence-based guidance from independent public health experts.”

“We are pleased that the Court agreed with us that the City’s obligations under the settlement agreement remain in force, and highlighted the importance of ongoing vigilance and monitoring of the City’s adherence to its legal commitments,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “With rising COVID-19 counts, we are concerned about people who use shelters, people who work at shelters, and the whole community.”

“This case highlights the need to be vigilant about protecting the health of people who use shelters,” said Senior Staff Lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services Emily Hill. “Our goal is to keep Indigenous people and communities safe from the spread of COVID-19.”

“As the second wave of Covid-19 is well under way and first snow could fly any day, it is urgent and vital that the City of Toronto finally and fully provide appropriately physically distanced shelter space for its poorest residents,” said Doug Johnson Hatlem, street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto. “Hundreds of those residents remain outdoors in tents or otherwise sleeping rough due to legitimate fears of contracting a deadly and highly contagious disease, and because the shelters are crowded and full.”

“It’s important to remember that shelters are a band-aid solution. From a health perspective, the real focus should be moving people into adequate and permanent housing,” said Kenneth Hale, legal director at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

September 29, 2020 – The City of Toronto breached the agreement to protect those experiencing homelessness, and we are taking them back to court on Oct 1. In its written legal argument, the Coalition relies on emails and other documents it obtained through the court process to show that that senior managers within the City’s Shelter Support & Housing Administration had actual knowledge on June 15 that the City was not in compliance with its obligation under the Agreement. Nevertheless, on June 15, the City asserted to the Coalition that it had achieved 100% compliance with physical distancing requirements across the shelter system. “The City of Toronto has breached its legal obligations to protect our most vulnerable residents. So far, there have been 45 COVID-19 outbreaks in the Toronto shelter system, 649 people who use shelters have contracted COVID- 19 and four people have died, and we are all now bracing for winter and the second wave” says Doug Johnson Hatlem of Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto. “The evidence in this case provides a troubling behind-the-scenes look into the City’s mishandling of COVID-19 in its homeless shelters.”

“Justice demands that all Toronto residents be protected from COVID – all the more so those who are most vulnerable.” – Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, CCLA’s Equality Director

May 20, 2020 – The City of Toronto has now delivered its first progress report, as required by the settlement reached with our Coalition (Sanctuary, ACTO, ALS, BLAC, CCLA and HALCO) in response to our lawsuit about the overcrowding in shelters during Covid. As part of the settlement, the City must provide regular reports about its physical distancing efforts within the shelter system, including capacity and occupancy numbers at the different sites. The settlement also authorizes our Coalition to question the City about its reports, and requires the City of Toronto to provide meaningful responses.

May 19, 2020 – The City of Toronto has finally committed to creating and maintaining critical physical distancing standards across its shelter system. Last month, CCLA with 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.

April 24, 2020 – CCLA and coalition partners including Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, Aboriginal Legal Services, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, Black Legal Action Centre, and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, have filed a constitutional and human rights challenge against the City of Toronto. 

April 20, 2020 – With other organizations worried about the health of our most vulnerable, CCLA wrote a letter to the city demanding immediate action to ensure appropriate physical distancing. 

March 29, 2020 – CCLA wrote to the Mayor and Council of Toronto setting out in clear terms the need for housing, for safe non-congregate shelter spaces, and for appropriate physical distancing for homeless individuals.