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Coronavirus: City of Toronto settles lawsuit with advocates over distancing standards in shelters

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TORONTO – Physical distancing will now be standard in Toronto’s shelter system during the COVID-19 pandemic after the city settled with a group of advocates for the homeless who took it to court.

A drop-in centre and other human rights organizations and the city agreed to place shelter beds two metres apart, which is consistent with the distance health officials have mandated for the rest of the public.

READ MORE: Standoff between homeless, city officials at downtown Toronto encampments

The city has also agreed to end the use of bunk beds in its shelters during the pandemic.

“I feel good about the settlement,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto that was a part of the case.

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“The part I don’t feel good about is they should have done this 10 weeks ago and it shouldn’t have required a court case.”

In late April, Sanctuary along with Aboriginal Legal Services, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, Black Legal Action Centre, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario filed the suit against the city.

It alleged the city “put lives at risk” for its handling of the homeless during the pandemic.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: City of Toronto begins moving some homeless people into apartments

The group of organizations sought an immediate injunction in an effort to force the city’s 75 shelters to follow physical distancing rules.

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The suit alleged the city violated shelter residents’ Charter of Rights and Freedoms and breached the Ontario Human Rights Code.

They allege the city’s standards of placing beds 0.75 metres apart, rather than the two-metre distance health officials have mandated, and the use of bunk beds in shelters, was unconstitutional during the pandemic.

“The interim settlement confirms the city’s commitment and on-going work since March to physical distancing in shelter and respite sites of at least two metres of lateral separation between beds or alternate sleeping arrangements, and no use of the upper bunks of bunk beds in any setting,” the city said in a statement.

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“The city is also ensuring that all alternative indoor space offered to anyone living outside meets physical distancing measures.”

The city has also agreed to regularly report on its progress “until it reaches and sustains compliance for 2 months” according to a summary of the agreement provided by one of the lawyers involved in the case.

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In exchange, lawyer Jessica Orkin says the group of organizations have adjourned its injunction motion, which was set to be heard on June 8.

As of Sunday, the city said 352 people in the shelter system have tested positive for COVID-19 with two deaths and 306 active cases.

The city is undertaking a massive initiative to find homes for those in the shelter system to have their own room and bed.

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By last week, the city said it had moved more than 2,500 from the shelters into 27 different temporary sites.

The city has bought or leased hotels in the effort that is set to cost an estimated $200 million until the end of the year.

Many living in shelters have taken to living outside during the pandemic. More than two dozen people living in tents that have popped up across the city have told The Canadian Press they preferred to live outside instead of in a shelter.

READ MORE: Toronto homelessness advocates sue city over COVID-19 response

The city put a moratorium on clearing out the encampments, but have resumed those efforts in recent weeks.

On Friday, the city got into a brief standoff with those living in tents under the Gardiner Expressway downtown and advocates.

The city says it will offer a spot in a hotel to those living in tents, but that the clearings will continue.

About 100 people in tents have been moved into furnished apartments paid for by the city.

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