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City said shelters were all physically distanced despite knowing they weren’t, new court documents claim

When Toronto reported in June that it had fully complied with physical distancing requirements in its shelter  system, there were still 32 beds at seven sites that weren’t yet  adhering to distancing standards, new documents in an ongoing lawsuit  reveal — something a coalition of homeless service providers and human  rights advocates allege that senior city managers knew. 

“Although  it was under no requirement to do so by a particular point in time, for  its own reasons, 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 claims.

Lawyer Jessica Orkin, who represents the coalition, said the new documents –  which include emails between city staff and others on June 15 – present a  “very clear paper trail” of the city knowing it wasn’t in compliance,  but deciding to claim it anyway. 

The coalition is asking the court to find that the city hadn’t reached compliance by June 15 — and still hasn’t.

The  city disputes that claim, though it confirmed in documents filed  Tuesday that 32 beds at seven sites were not properly distanced when it  claimed full system compliance on June 15.

The  city argues that the beds represent just 0.45 per cent of the shelter  system, and that their impact was negligible. The last of those beds  were taken out of the system by Sept. 9, the city says.

The lawsuit also includes disputes over the definition of appropriate spacing and who the city is obligated to shelter. 

A hearing has been scheduled for Thursday. 

The  suit was initially filed by the coalition earlier in the pandemic. It  accused the city of failing to provide safe living conditions in its  shelters, respites and drop-in facilities.

A  settlement was reached in May, in which the city agreed to make best  efforts to ensure two metres between all beds, stop using bunk beds, and  ensure that beds were available for anyone receiving support services  from the system since March 11, including those in encampments. 

But the coalition relaunched its case in July – shortly after the city said it reached full compliance. 

In  the newly filed documents, the city says the decision to assert  achievement on June15 was made by Gordon Tanner, the city’s homeless  initiatives and prevention services director, and was based on its  interpretation of the settlement and the commitment to use “best  efforts” to achieve distancing — understanding that “fine tuning and  adjustments would continue.”

Reaching  that milestone meant the city no longer had to issue weekly progress  reports, and could stop issuing monthly updates after two months. 

The  coalition has filed with the court emails from the day the final weekly  report was sent that is says are evidence senior managers knew the city  hadn’t reached full compliance. The city says the emails merely  demonstrate a final push to get there. 

“I  know everyone wants this to disappear, but I feel like we are pushing a  bit too hard to finalize today and it could leave us vulnerable,” Brad  Boucher, operations and support services manager, wrote to several other  city staff members at 7:37 a.m. on June 15, the documents show. 

Boucher  wrote that his team hadn’t begun “any of the work” outlined in an  earlier email from the director of service planning and integrity, “so  we will definitely be rushed to complete.”

An  email from a little more than an hour later from Tanner says that he’d  assured Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of SSHA, that the report that  day would be their last weekly dispatch. 

“Please  do what you can to have the team complete their assigned work today.  Our (quality assurance) visits will continue as we move forward in the  spirit of continuous improvement,” Tanner wrote back to Boucher and  several others on the email chain. 

Other  emails in the new filings raised concern with specific sites, and show  Boucher noting that a number of providers either used a six-foot measurement instead of the mandated two metres – a difference of roughly  half a foot – “or admitted they never measured at all.”

After  a conference call between Tanner and other city staff members around  5:30 p.m. that day, the final weekly report was sent to the coalition’s  legal team by the city’s counsel at 9:49 p.m.

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The  city, in its new filing, said it was “evident” that the significance of  the commitment made in the May settlement was not communicated to  staff. But the city argues that the documents filed don’t support the  allegation that staff were deliberately hiding sites that weren’t yet  compliant.

The coalition, meanwhile,  is asking the court for “additional protections” to ensure the  sufficiency of the city’s efforts, and the reliability of the  information it provides. 

Since  COVID-19 struck, the costs to operate a shelter bed have doubled in  Toronto due largely to reductions in capacity, and the city says roughly  a third of shelters are no longer viable. 

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star

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