Why Toronto is being taken to court over shelters and encampment tear-downs

A coalition of housing advocates says the city stated it complied with physical distancing rules within shelters when many were still unsafely spaced


A coalition of human rights groups and housing advocates took the city of Toronto back to Superior Court on Thursday. The groups say the city hasn’t met its legal obligation to ensure two-metre physical distancing in homeless shelters under an agreement signed in June. 

Moreover, the coalition says that emails and documents obtained through the court show the city failed to provide accurate information on the status of its efforts to enforce physical distancing in shelters.

“On the same day that the city asserted that it had achieved full compliance with the two-metre physical distancing requirements, multiple city managers were aware that this had, in fact, not been achieved for a substantial number of sites across the shelter system,” said Jessica Orkin, co-counsel for the coalition, in a news release.

Orkin says, “This conduct reveals a troubling pattern of disregard for the truth.”

The coalition is asking the court to find that the city failed to act in good faith, and that it appoint a monitor to enforce the city’s compliance.

According to Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, which is one of the coalition members, there have been 45 COVID-19 outbreaks in the Toronto shelter system. Some 649 people who use the shelter system have contracted COVID- 19. Five people have died.

The beginnings of the dispute, explained

The legal dispute began in April after the deaths of two shelter residents and more than 300 COVID-19 cases at some 21 sites. A lawsuit filed by the coalition alleged a failure on the city’s part to protect the lives of those experiencing homelessness throughout the emergency shelter system. 

The groups argued that the city and province are obligated to protect people under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides for the security of the person.

“Even if they are homeless, when the city is providing and funding and supervising and regulating emergency housing, it has an obligation to make sure that housing is safe,” Kenneth Hale, a representative for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, explains. 

The coalition argued that the city is required to add additional shelter spaces and ensure it provides service to anybody who sought its services before the pandemic. The city came to an agreement with the coalition in May to abide by a two-metre physical distancing rule in shelters. The city also agreed to update the coalition on a weekly basis until it reached compliance in all shelters. On June 15, the coalition received notice that the city reached compliance.

But the coalition says that many shelters had never implemented proper physical distancing protocols. 

Hale says the city not only hadn’t reached compliance but knew it hadn’t and decided to claim it had anyway.

“The city wants to say that we misinterpreted the agreement… that all they committed to was to try to achieve it,” he says. “And that’s not really what the agreement was.”

In an email response to questions from NOW, the city’s media relations team states, “the City disputes any allegation that staff has not acted appropriately to create physical distancing in the shelter system.”

The city’s legal factum claims that there were only “minor exceedances” after June 15 in terms of shelters that were still over capacity.  

Safe and affordable housing a major concern for Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities

Emily Hill, a representative from Aboriginal Legal Services, says Indigenous people are overrepresented among people who use Toronto’s homeless shelters.

Research from the Homeless Hub states that Indigenous people make up around 15 per cent of those experiencing homelessness in Toronto, even though they represent less than one per cent of the population. 

“All of us who are living through this pandemic can think about what that must be like. The anxiety that all of us feel when it gets too crowded on the sidewalk and someone’s not making space, or when we’re going to a grocery store… we’ve all experienced that anxiety,” Hill says. “So you can just imagine what that’s like in the place that you are sleeping and showering and eating for homeless shelters… especially because so many other services were shut down during the pandemic.”

Fareeda Adam, a representative from the Black Legal Action Centre, voiced similar concerns about the disproportionate ways Black communities have been affected by housing issues in Toronto.

Black people account for 23 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the city despite making up only eight per cent of the population. She references 2020 data from the Wellesley Institute that found Black renters in Toronto are at higher risk for eviction.

Adam says the community is witnessing “a real convergence of issues” that has created “a perfect storm.”

A “catch-22” situation between encampments and shelters

Adam says the city has placed people afraid to use the shelter system in a “catch-22.”

Many encampments have cropped up in parks across the city since the start of the pandemic due to an increase in evictions and precarious living situations, as well as physical distancing concerns in the shelter system. But bylaws ban people from living in parks after midnight.

“Simultaneously [the city is] saying to people, ‘You can’t stay in tents and parks.’ However, there is no shelter space and there’s nowhere that you can go so that you can be safe. So ultimately, what are folks supposed to do?” Adam asks.

A group of 14 encampment residents along with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Neighbourhood Legal Services also took the city to court on October 1 to challenge the bylaw. 

The city argues in its factum against the lawsuit that, “Parks are not places to live. They are shared community resources, intended for shared use by all members of the public.”

Hill says that neither encampments nor shelters are adequate long-term housing solutions.

“We’re not trying to push people out of encampments into badly spaced shelters, or out of shelters into cold encampments, but to actually come up with stable housing solutions that work so people can be both safe from disease and also warm,” she says.

“There are some people in those encampments who legitimately believe that this is the only alternative they have,” Hale adds. “It really demonstrates the failure of our system. Until those efforts of the city actually work – and people can voluntarily go somewhere that they feel safe – I don’t think it’s right to push them out from where they are.”

@juliamastro

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