Coalition takes Toronto back to court over pandemic safety for homeless people

“They’re still not a two meter distance in all directions,” says street pastor about space in the shelters.

A coalition of lawyers and advocates was back in court Thursday taking action against the City of Toronto alleging it’s not doing enough to protect homeless people during the pandemic.

The group has resumed court action because they say the city is in breach of an agreement reached May 15, 2020 from a former court case.

“Anybody who had been in the system since COVID started on March 11… the city agreed that they would provide them a bed,” says Doug Johnson Hatlem of the Sanctuary shelter in downtown Toronto.

Hatlem has been a part of the case since the beginning.

He says anyone who had a bed, meal or was even waiting in referral for a bed prior to the pandemic lockdown in March is entitled under the agreement to a bed.

He says by not providing those spots the city is in breach of agreement and they are putting people at risk.

People like Stephanie Williams who is supposed to be covered by the agreement.

She is Indigenous and has been waiting to be placed in a shelter for months. She will spend the odd night or two in one but is then back on the street the next day.

She currently lives in a tent where her belongings are constantly being stolen.

“If there’s a big group of people living together, that’s where it would usually happen,” Williams told APTN News.

She is hoping the city will work it out so they can work together to find more safe space for shelters and housing for the homeless.

Besides not providing beds, the coalition is saying the city is also not properly distancing beds at shelters in accordance to the agreement.

“They’re still not a two meter distance in all directions and even to get close to that they had to turn people like Stephanie away from the system regularly that under the agreement, have a right to have the shelter space,” Hatlem said.

According to Hatlem, in order to space beds the city took away more than 500 beds resulting in a seven per cent reduction citywide and he says the city is dragging its feet.

In their court filing the City of Toronto stated the coalition misunderstood the wording “lateral separation” of beds meaning they don’t have to separate beds two meters “in all directions.” Only on the sides of beds.

Hatlem doesn’t agree with that and said the city has been lying, hiding their lack of progress from them and the courts. They are asking that the city appear before the court and swear under oath that they are doing their jobs. To which the city replied in their filing was “preposterous” and “offensive.”

“The City disputes the allegations made in the Applicants’ court filing,” said a statement from the city’s spokesperson. “City staff have been working tremendously hard since the beginning of this pandemic to ensure that physical distancing was implemented and maintained within the shelter system.”

Nikki Sutherland just recently moved into a hotel rented out by the city – before that she was in a tent and shelters before that.

She says she would not feel safe going back to a shelter because a lot of them are still not social distancing. People are allowed to come and go and that means a lot of mixing of social bubbles.

“You can’t know where they’ve been,” she says. “It scares me. I mean I want to stay healthy. Not just for myself but for my children, my friends, my elders.”

The coalition is asking the court assign a monitor to ensure the city is complying to its commitments of protecting homeless from the risks of infection from COVID-19.

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