Homelessness Advocacy Groups Taking Toronto to Court Over COVID-19 Response


They’re doing a fair bit more than that, actually. A coalition of homelessness advocacy organizations are taking the City of Toronto to court over what it deems an inadequate response to the current pandemic.

It’s not hard to see why they’re upset. Many of Toronto’s shelters – as is true of the vast majority of homeless shelters across the continent – don’t accommodate the government-mandated social distancing guidelines. Try reading Canada’s guidelines to “stop the spread” through the lens of a homeless shelter client:

COVID-19 Rules

What may require just a bit of forethought for many becomes impossible for shelter users in Canada’s largest city. Three of those four bullet points are out of the question. And there’s little solace to be taken in merely “avoiding handshakes” when one lives in a public space with countless shelter seekers around them.

Shelters Provide Unwelcome Breeding Ground for Spread

The lawsuit hinges on the claim that by failing to provide the ability/space to social distance, Toronto’s shelters are violating the Canadian Charter of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from which the Canadian charter stems, to promote and protect the health of the country’s citizens.

Kenneth Hale, legal director for the Advocacy Centre of Tenants Ontario, explains the legal ramifications involved:

“That’s where the Charter is engaged. [City shelters are] 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.”

It’s that difference in health standards that has the ACTO riled up. And rightfully so. The rights defined in Canada’s charter are to be applied to humans, not just those of a specific demographic or those that fall within a trivially set income bracket.

Fears that COVID-19 will spread within homeless shelters are far from theoretical. As of mid-May, Toronto shelters reported 279 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among clients and staff.

COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters are depressingly predictable.

Just look at New York City and Boston. It’s not just big city shelters that are feeling the squeeze. Calgary, with a population all of 1.5 million, experienced an outbreak late last month, with three clients testing positive. Dr. Chris Mody, professor and head of the department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, made this telling statement:

“To be perfectly honest, I was somewhat surprised that it took this long to get the first case.”

All of this is not to say that Toronto’s city officials haven’t been making efforts to right the ship. They’ve recently opened 11 new facilities and secured more than 1,200 hotel rooms in an effort to allow for social distancing. Nearly 800 people had moved into those rooms, with another 500 moved to recently opened community spaces.

Mary-Anne Bédard has been working hard to that end. She’s the head of Toronto’s shelter department, and she’s been busy. The city has moved 2,000 homeless people from crowded shelters into hotel rooms, new emergency shelters, and public housing. The city has also opened up isolation centers for homeless people awaiting test results. Preventative measures have also been taken. Bédard and her team identify the most vulnerable people and moving them out of shelters in an effort to limit the pandemic’s impact.

COVID-19 Response ‘Not Just a Matter of Snapping Your Fingers and Moving People’

Mayor John Tory is frustrated that the ACTO is suing the city. He’s right that wide-scale changes in how homeless shelters operate isn’t a “snap your finger”-type of problem. It will reasonably take some time to sort out the mess, and lives will be lost because of it. That’s why homeless advocates are upset. They feel that the city’s response has been too little, too late.

This pandemic is painfully exposing just how underprepared we are for a dangerous, contagious virus. This realization has people saying that the world will be different going forward. Hospitals have been hit hard and are changing how they isolate patients and process respiratory samples. Care homes have been crippled, with staff and clients affected. Big business is changing how they work. Perhaps office buildings will be relegated to an antiquated concept we tell our children about. Going to Costco now involves donning a mask. Our post-COVID-19 world is one that we won’t recognize. It will require acclimation.

Many hope that these changes will be improvements – changes that make us smarter, safer, healthier, less vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease. Maybe it’s high time that we revisit the homeless shelter model. Cities like Toronto are stuck in a nearly impossible position because of the fundamental flaws set into motion by putting so many people into a confined living space. Toronto shelters were created to fail against coronavirus-like pressure.

On the other hand, the mantra of housing is healthcare rings particularly loud these days.

As a society, we’re beginning to realize that for a community to be healthy, every member of it has to have the ability to protect and promote their own well-being. Being able to social distance is key. Getting the homeless out of shelters and into homes is a win for everyone.

Micah Bertoli

Micah Bertoli


Micah Bertoli is a Medical Laboratory Technologist and freelance writer. He is passionate about volunteer work, spending much time helping displaced people settle into their new environments.

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