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Toronto homelessness advocates sue city over COVID-19 response

Coronavirus outbreak: Toronto homelessness advocates sue city over COVID-19 response
Advocates for Toronto's homeless say the city isn't doing enough when it comes to aiding the ability of the population with physical distancing.

A coalition of homelessness advocacy groups is suing the City of Toronto over its response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The organizations behind the lawsuit include the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Black Legal Action Centre and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario.

They claim many shelters in the city fail to offer two metres of distance between users. This, they contend, violates parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“That’s where the Charter is engaged,” explained Kenneth Hale, the legal director for ACTO. “It’s treating people who are in the situation of requiring homeless shelters to accept standards that are dangerous to their health. That is below the standards that’s being applied to everyone else.”

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Outside the Sanctuary Ministries drop-in centre on Charles Street just east of Yonge Street on Sunday, tents lined its walls. Outreach worker Greg Cook told Global News some of the people in the tents couldn’t find space in shelters while others avoided shelters altogether.

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“Many people have left the shelters because they don’t feel safe,” he said.

“They’re not able to physically distance.”

On Saturday, the city said in a statement it had opened 11 new facilities and secured more than 1,200 hotel rooms for homeless people. About 770 people had moved into hotel rooms, with 492 people moved to community space, it said.

Mayor John Tory called the lawsuit “disappointing.”

“We’ve had to do this carefully,” Tory said over Skype. “That isn’t just a matter of snapping your fingers and moving people overnight one day and being able to say it’s all done.”

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Speaking over Zoom, city councillor Joe Cressy insisted while there is more work to be done, it isn’t the city that is to blame.

“Just like the province finally announced that they’re doing proactive testing in the long-term care facilities, that’s not happening in our shelters,” he said. “The City of Toronto doesn’t do testing — it’s the province.”

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As of Friday, the city had 135 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in residents and staff at shelters, according to Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health. Of 75 shelters, 14 had outbreaks of the virus.

“The worry is that the numbers of positive cases will increase dramatically and we’ll have health complications or death,” said Cathy Crowe, a long-time street nurse.

The city is expected to provide an update on the COVID-19 situation at shelters on Monday.