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Homeless advocates, City of Toronto set to clash in court over distancing in shelters

TORONTO — A group of advocates for the homeless claim the City of Toronto lied about complying with physical distancing measures in shelters, but the municipality is disputing the allegations, new court filings reveal.

TORONTO — A group of advocates for the homeless claim the City of Toronto lied about complying with physical distancing measures in shelters, but the municipality is disputing the allegations, new court filings reveal.

The two sides are set to square off in court Thursday over the city's response to COVID-19 in Toronto's vast shelter system.

In particular, the advocates and the city are seeking clarification from the Superior Court of Justice about how physical distance requirements should be interpreted.

The advocates' group — a coalition of organizations that includes a drop-in centre and several human rights and civil rights organizations — alleged in court filings that the city has not been following distancing rules in shelters.

"The City determined to assert that it had achieved compliance with physical distancing standards on June 15, 2020, despite actual knowledge that it had not in fact done so," it alleged.

The city said in court documents, however, that it has worked tirelessly to move more than 2,000 people out of shelters and into housing in order to achieve physical distancing requirements.

"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," it said in a statement. 

The advocates first launched the legal action in late April, seeking an injunction to force the city's 75 shelters to follow physical distancing rules. They alleged the city violated shelter residents' charter rights and breached the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The legal action had effectively been put on hold after the city agreed to ensure physical distancing in shelters and to provide beds to those in need.

Now the advocates say the city had not met the distancing guidelines in some shelters, as it agreed to.

The two sides are asking the court for clarity on the distancing rules.

The advocates say numerous emails and documents from city staff show several shelter sites did not have beds placed two metres apart, the standard public health measurement to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

"The guidance sought on this motion includes a rejection of the concept of 'longitudinal' spacing — a concept introduced by the City in an apparent attempt to define away a significant source of non-compliance with the 'lateral separation of at least 2 metre between beds' standard agreed to by the parties," the group wrote.

The city, however, disagrees.

"(The advocates) further allege that the City ought to have been aware that the applicants had a different understanding of the meaning of lateral separation, despite never once advising the City that they thought 2 metres lateral separation meant 2 metres in all directions," the city wrote in court documents.

The city also took offence to allegations that it has lied and misled the advocates, calling allegations of a coverup "preposterous" and "offensive."

The city said it has moved 2,300 beds and assessed over 100 sites for physical distancing compliance since the pandemic began.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 29, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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