It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to ensure that Toronto shelters move beds two meters apart in a pandemic.
In a previous blog, I recorded how and why a legal coalition took the city of Toronto to court to protect the homeless from COVID-19.
An agreement was reached and one would think that would be the end of the story.
Not the case.
The legal coalition of human rights and housing lawyers comprised of Sanctuary Toronto, Aboriginal Legal Services, the Advocacy Center for Tenants Ontario, the Black Legal Action Center, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, and Goldblatt Partners was established in Tried on Sept. 9, arguing that the city of Toronto breached its agreement on physical distancing in shelters.
The Ontario Supreme Court agreed. In a decision released on October 15, Justice Lorne Sossin found that the city had violated its obligations under the agreement it had signed with the coalition. The city claimed on June 15 that it had achieved compliance with physical distancing standards between all beds in the protection system, despite neither reaching that milestone nor doing its best.
The court confirmed in its ruling that “any failure by the city to take all reasonable steps to meet physical distancing standards in congregation shelters increases an already significant risk for the spread of COVID-19 to some of the most vulnerable members of our society . “”
The city persistently insisted that the two meter gap applies only to the space between the sides of the bed, not the entire perimeter.
The court criticized the interpretation of the requirements for physical distancing of two meters through the city, ruling that this interpretation was adopted “without the benefit of public health guidelines”.
The court ruled that future decisions on the configuration and removal of beds in shelters must be based on specific and transparent public health expertise and guidelines. She ordered the city to seek guidance and share the results with the coalition that initiated the legal challenge.
The coalition members responded to the court’s decision in a media release:
“The court ruling shows that the city needs to better protect people in shelters from the transmission of COVID-19,” said Fareeda Adam of the Black Legal Action Center. “651 people using shelters have contracted COVID-19 and four people have died. We know that this virus disproportionately affects black, indigenous and other racialized communities, as well as people with disabilities, and these communities are also among residents over-represented by animal shelters. “”
“The court’s ruling confirms the coalition’s position that the city has not done enough to reduce the risk of COVID transmission within Toronto’s protective system and that the city’s claim of adhering to physical distancing standards was premature “said Jessica Orkin, applicants’ legal advisor. “Justice Sossin’s ruling will ensure that decisions about physical distancing within the protection system are based on evidence-based guidance from independent public health experts.”
“With COVID-19 rising, we are concerned about people using shelters, people working in shelters and the wider community,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“This case underscores the need to be vigilant in protecting the health of those using shelters,” said Emily Hill, senior lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services. “Our goal is to protect indigenous peoples and communities from the spread of COVID-19.”
“With the second wave of Covid-19 already in full swing and with the first snow flying any day, it is urgent and important that the city of Toronto finally and fully provide its poorest residents with adequately physically detached shelter,” said Doug Johnson Hatlem , Street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto. “Hundreds of these residents stay out in tents or otherwise restlessly sleeping because they have legitimate concerns about a deadly and highly contagious disease and because the shelters are overcrowded and full.”
In October, the US Centers for Disease Control revised their guidelines to allow the novel coronavirus to be spread by aerosols that “linger in the air for minutes to hours” and travel more than three feet. A generous interpretation of two meters should certainly apply to emergency shelters that are overcrowded with poor ventilation.
As Leilani Farha said, “Home has seldom been a life and death situation more.” It will be the only guaranteed protection from now on.
Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, writer and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.
Image: Cathy Crowe