TORONTO -- Mayor John Tory says that a legal challenge by a group of organizations that support the homeless is “disappointing” given the “epic” efforts that the city is taking to limit the spread of COVID-19 within shelters.

Lawyers from the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, the Black Legal Action Centre, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Aboriginal Legal Services filed paperwork with the courts on Friday, arguing that the close quarters in some Toronto shelters violate the right to life and security of shelter residents under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and also breach the Ontario Human Rights Code.

In an open letter sent to the city prior to filing the paperwork, the lawyers said that the municipality must “impose and implement mandatory standards in shelters and respites requiring 2 metres of physical distancing between beds and ending the use of bunk beds.” They said that in situations where such standards cannot be met, the city must also “hasten its provision of alternative safe shelters.”

Tory, however, told CP24 on Sunday morning that the city has already worked “tirelessly” to ensure physical distancing in shelters amid the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to do so.

He said that 11 new facilities have been opened and 770 people have already been relocated to hotel rooms and another 492 have moved to community spaces with more to follow. He also said that the city and community partners have opened a 200-bed facility for members of the homeless community who are recovering from COVID-19, something that he said was a “first of its kind” in North America.

“Quite frankly the court case is disappointing because I think any objective examination of this would say that what we have done is – and you know it is never enough in some respects - but at the same time I think we have done things that are epic in terms of the accomplishment,” he said. “Nothing has taken up more of our time and quite properly so than looking after our most vulnerable populations.”

135 cases in shelter system

City officials have said that there are 135 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among shelter residents, including 88 at the Willowdale Welcome Centre for refugees. That number is up from 10 confirmed cases one week prior.

Jessica Orkin, who is a lawyer representing some of the organizations in the charter challenge, told CP24 on Sunday morning that there are “thousands of empty hotel rooms in the city right now” and that the city has to expedite its efforts to move shelter residents into those sort of spaces amid a COVID-19 pandemic that is quickly turning into a “crisis” within the shelter system.

She said that a failure to do so will leave dozens of shelters in a precarious position in which it will be “impossible” to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 should cases present themselves within the building.

“The city has moved over 700 people out of the shelters and into hotels. That is about 30 a day and at this rate in order to clear out the shelters to a level that is of a basic public health standard we are looking at months and month so we are saying that the courts need to take a look at this, intervene and press the city to allocate all the resources required to make this happen in a rapid and appropriate way,” she said.

The letter sent to the city says that despite some efforts to relocate shelter residents, “hazardous spacing practices” continue to exist within many facilities.

It says that the as a result of the “slow pace” taken by the city people experiencing homelessness are being put “at an immediate risk for contracting COVID-19, while thousands of hotel rooms in the city lie vacant.”

For his part, Tory said that moving members of the homeless community to hotel rooms and other temporary facilities isn’t as easy as “giving them a Presto card and saying here is where you go.”

He said that it is a challenge that staff are trying to meet “as quickly and diligently as they can,” something that he said he expects “any fair-minded examination” by the courts to support.

“We have hotel rooms that have been arranged beyond the ones we are presently using. The challenge isn’t so much just getting the hotel rooms, the challenge is in actually making the move,” he said. “We have to consult with these people, we have to try to make sure that where we send people will have all the suitable supports, medical and otherwise. These are people who often times have other issues in their lives that we have to make sure are addressed. So it isn’t as simple as juts saying just book a hotel room.”

There are 75 shelter and respite sites in Toronto with about 7,000 spaces, though most of them routinely operate at maximum capacity.

Speaking with CP24 on Sunday, downtown city councillor Joe Cressy conceded that COVID-19 “preys on congregate settings like shelters” but agreed with Tory that the city is doing everything it can to limit the problem.

He also said that legal actions "take the pressure off other levels of government" who should be doing more to assist in its efforts.

“We can of course as a city always do more but let me be honest here: I think things like this lawsuit not only are they unhelp; it is unproductive because it takes time away from city staff actually responding to the crisis to instead write legal memos,” he said.