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Two people who were living in an encampment salvage their belongings from the jaws of a city truck as workers move to clear the encampment in downtown Toronto, on May 15, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Toronto will ensure all beds in its emergency shelter system are two metres apart and will report on its progress to a collection of advocacy groups as part of an interim settlement in a court challenge that alleges its treatment of the homeless during the pandemic violates the Constitution.

Lawyers for the groups that launched the case, which include Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto – a Christian charity that works with the homeless – and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, say they reached the deal with the city after talks Friday evening. The judge in the case was advised Tuesday morning.

The legal challenge alleges the city and the province of Ontario violated the rights of homeless people under the Charter by allowing them to live in shelters where beds were as close as 75 centimetres to each other.

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The deal does not end the underlying Constitutional challenge. But it adjourns a court hearing scheduled for June 8, when the advocacy groups planned to seek an injunction banning the city from authorizing the operation of shelters with less than the recommended two metres of physical distancing between beds to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The specific terms of the interim settlement are being kept confidential. But according to a public summary provided by lawyers for the advocacy groups, the city has agreed to use its best efforts, for two months, “to achieve without delay and thereafter sustain” the recommended physical distancing standards in its shelters, including banning the use of bunk beds.

The city will also be required to issue regular progress reports to the advocacy groups and to offer physically distanced indoor spaces to any homeless people it clears from encampments.

The city has maintained that it was acting quickly to space out its shelter beds, while activists charged that progress was too slow.

Last week, Mary-Anne Bédard, general manager of the city’s shelter system, said Toronto had spaced 95 per cent of its shelter beds two metres apart, having moved 2,500 people into new shelters, leased hotels rooms and apartments. She expected to make 100 per cent of shelters compliant this week, adding that inspectors were going to make site visits to ensure the goal was achieved.

Despite these efforts, at last count 346 homeless people had tested positive for the virus in Toronto, with one shelter for refugees alone seeing 178 cases. Two homeless men have died.

Jessica Orkin, a lawyer for the advocacy groups with Toronto law firm Goldblatt Partners, said Tuesday’s deal will require the city to provide much more information about its efforts, including occupancy data for each site and detailed reports to her clients that she said would be made public.

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“We have achieved a measure of the kind of clarity and accountability that we were looking for, in terms of the city being required to report on its progress,” Ms. Orkin said.

The city had promised on April 23 to have all beds in the shelter system spaced two metres apart by April 30, she said, and yet had still not done so by May 15.

In an affidavit filed in the court challenge, Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with the group Sanctuary, says that as recently as April 30, residents or staff at eight downtown shelters told him that beds or cots were still less than the required distance from each other.

His affidavit also includes photos taken by homeless people in mid-to-late April that appear to show cots too close together even at two shelters the city set up in response to COVID-19.

In a statement released Tuesday, the city said the settlement “confirms the City’s commitment and ongoing work since March” to bring in physical distancing at its shelters, most of which are operated by non-profit agencies.

“Implementing a comprehensive response as quickly as possible for Toronto’s most vulnerable has been a City priority,” the city said.

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