Toronto groups threaten legal action against city over 'deplorable' shelter system conditions

A coalition of public-interest organizations says it has made the "difficult decision" to file legal proceedings against the City of Toronto as early as Thursday over what it calls the "deplorable" condition of the shelter system. 

City must do more to protect people experiencing homelessness during pandemic, groups say

A coalition of public interest groups is threatening to file legal action against the city as early as Thursday over the conditions of the shelter system during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

A coalition of public-interest organizations is threatening to file legal proceedings against the City of Toronto as early as Thursday, unless the city takes more "urgent action" to improve its shelter system and protect people experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The groups — which include the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, the Black Legal Action Centre, and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario — say the shelter system is "deplorable" and threatens the health and safety of the people forced to use it. 

"If we are forced to litigate this issue, we will argue 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," the groups said in a letter sent by their law firm, Goldblatt Partners LLP. 

The letter was sent to several city officials on Monday, including Toronto Mayor John Tory and Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health.

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

COVID-19 outbreaks at 14 Toronto shelters 

In the letter, the groups say it's "no surprise" that congregate living facilities have been hit hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that the city's shelter system is no exception. 

"The numbers of outbreaks and cases are rising at an alarming rate among our city's most vulnerable," the letter reads. 

As of April 20, there have been outbreaks at 14 Toronto shelters, with over 100 confirmed cases.  

One facility where there is a significant outbreak is the Willowdale Welcome Centre, a shelter for refugees in North York, where 88 residents have tested positive for the disease, according to recently released data from Toronto Public Health. 

"We fear that this number will only continue to rise in coming days," the groups said in the letter. 

Willowdale Welcome Centre, a refugee shelter in North York, had 110 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. (Homes First Society)

Enforce physical distancing in shelters, groups urge

In a news release on Monday, the city said, "While public health officials are optimistic about trends observed in cases of community spread and the success of public health measures, cases in congregate settings remain a concern." 

Toronto Public Health is continuing to work with long-term care homes and shelters for people experiencing homelessness to deal with outbreaks, the release continued, including deploying hundreds of city staff to settings with the most vulnerable populations.

The city's shelters have been notoriously overcrowded for years, with about 7,000 people sleeping in them every night. Right now, the city is moving many residents from shelters to other centres that have been set up to help decrease density at the shelters so people using them can physically distance themselves. 

But those steps aren't enough, the coalition said.

The groups say the city isn't ensuring beds within the shelters are separated by two metres — a physical distancing bylaw enacted to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

"Despite the increased risks of transmission in congregate shelters, the city is not operating its shelter system in accordance with federal and provincial public health guidance," the letter reads. 

And while the groups acknowledged steps taken by the city to procure additional shelter space that includes 1,200 hotel rooms, they say the majority of those hotel rooms remain empty. 

"The slow pace at which the city is acting leaves people experiencing homelessness at an immediate risk for contracting COVID-19," the letter.states. 

With files from The Canadian Press