Toronto

Toronto groups file legal action against city over its response to COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters

A coalition of public-interest organizations filed legal proceedings against the City of Toronto over what they're calling "deplorable" conditions in the city's shelter system and respite sites amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

'People's lives are at risk,' outreach worker says

Several Toronto groups threatened to file legal proceedings earlier this week if the city didn't act swiftly to enhance its physical distancing measures and procure  additional shelter space. Those proceedings were then filed on Friday. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A coalition of public-interest organizations filed legal proceedings against the City of Toronto over what they're calling "deplorable" conditions in the city's shelter system and respite sites amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to documents obtained by CBC Toronto, Goldblatt Partners LLP, the lawyer representing the groups, filed the application against the city to Ontario's Superior Court of Justice on Friday. 

The groups — which include the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, the Black Legal Action Centre, and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario — threatened to file proceedings earlier this week if the city didn't act swiftly to enhance its physical distancing measures and procure additional shelter space. 

Other groups in the coalition include the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Aboriginal Legal Services and Sanctuary Ministries. 

"Beds or cots are still only two feet apart, people are in bunk beds, bathrooms aren't being cleaned more," said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries.

Greg Cook is an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries, one of the groups demanding two metres of distancing be required in shelters during COVID-19. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Cook says he'd like the city to enact an order ensuring two metres of distancing within shelters. 

"People's lives are at risk, people's health is at risk and we're kind of using any tool we have to make sure the city moves faster," Cook said. 

City opened 11 new facilities, secured 1,200 hotel rooms

In a statement issued Saturday, the city said it's in possession of the notice of application "with respect to its unprecedented, determined and expedited action to protect those experiencing homelessness in Toronto."

"Toronto's Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA) has worked tirelessly with Toronto Public Health, other City divisions, provincial and federal governments, and the community non-profit sector to rapidly tailor solutions for the city's most vulnerable," the statement reads. 

As of Friday, the city says it has opened 11 new facilities and secured more than 1,200 hotel rooms. Some 770 people have been moved to hotel rooms and another 492 people to community space. 

Additionally, the city said it's working with Toronto Community Housing and other housing providers on a rapid housing initiative.

The city says it has also increased the number of shelter and respite sites to maximize physical distancing in all settings, but "relocating people out of a familiar shelter setting, however, is complex," the statement says. 

To help facilitate the relocations, the city says 300 staff from other city departments are being redeployed to work in temporary shelter sites. 

Meeting with judge set for Monday 

But the Toronto organizations involved in the legal proceedings say those steps don't ensure social distancing, and moving people out of shelters and into spaces like hotel rooms is taking too long. 

The groups' lawyer said an initial meeting with the judge is set for Monday, where they will discuss timelines, as well as when a hearing could be scheduled. 

Lawyer Jessica Orkin filed the legal action. She represents a number of organizations, many that work with people who use shelters. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

"It's a hugely complex issue, but the city is not moving with any kind of speed that this crisis requires, given the vulnerability of this population and the public health guidelines," said Jessica Orkin, the lawyer who represents a number of organizations.  

135 cases among Toronto's homeless 

In the last 10 days, the COVID-19 outbreak among Toronto's homeless population has surged, with at least 135 cases, the majority of which come from one shelter that houses refugees.

Ten days ago, there were 30 cases of COVID-19 among the city's homeless.

But now there are 88 residents at the Willowdale Welcome Centre alone who have tested positive for the disease, according to recently released data from Toronto Public Health.

Officials say the majority of the cases at the shelter are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms of the disease.

There are more than 200 residents at the shelter, all of whom were tested for the disease by health-care workers from the North York General Hospital over the weekend along with all the shelter's staff, according to Homes First, which runs the facility.

The plan is to keep the remainder who have COVID-19 but without symptoms at the shelter. They are not allowed to leave for 14 days.

Local councillor John Filion said he was disappointed the province didn't allow for mass testing on the site at the time after the first positive case of COVID-19 came in two weeks ago.

On April 16, the province changed its guidelines to allow mass testing of homeless shelters. Provincial protocols previously did not allow for those in shelters to be tested en masse.

"I think we got lucky that more people aren't more seriously ill," Filion said.

200-room hotel opened last week 

Joe Cressy, a city councillor who is the chair of the board of health, said the city opened a 200-room hotel last week for those in the shelter system who tested positive for COVID-19. There are health-care workers on site.

About 130 people who have COVID-19 are currently recovering in that hotel, he said.

"It is a unique model because it is not a hospital nor is it a shelter," Cressy said. "The feedback we received has been very positive, so we plan to replicate this model."

The city had previously decided to use an "open-air congregate setting" — similar to large halls with beds — for a second site, but scrapped that idea, he said.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp, The Canadian Press