Toronto must defend the homeless

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 the homeless population 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.


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.