A coalition of public-interest organizations filed legal proceedings against the City of Toronto over what they’re calling “deplorable” conditions in the city’s shelter system and respite sites amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to documents obtained by CBC Toronto, Goldblatt Partners LLP, the lawyer representing the groups, filed the application against the city to Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice on Friday.

“Beds or cots are still only two feet apart, people are in bunk beds, bathrooms aren’t being cleaned more,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries.

The province of British Columbia is planning to relocate over 1,000 people who are homeless into vacant hotel rooms.

The government said it has worked with municipalities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to secure 1,700 hotel and community centre spaces.

The spaces are meant for people living in large tent cities, including Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver as well as Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria.

Doctors and homeless advocates are demanding government action to address what they call an inadequate response to COVID-19 outbreaks among Toronto’s homeless.

Their concern is so great that they have also reached out to Doctors Without Borders, experts in Third World medicine who before now had never operated in Canada.

“It’s just going to rip through (Toronto’s homeless),” street nurse Cathy Crowe said at an April 15 protest outside Toronto City Hall. “If this had been the Mississauga train disaster or something like that there would have been immediate action. This feels like molasses.”

A case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in a Halifax homeless shelter and the province is moving everyone from the shelter into a hotel to self-isolate.

Public health learned a shelter resident tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, confirmed at Friday’s coronavirus update.

Strang said a “vulnerable populations team” responded to the situation and found the hotel space.

He said everyone at the shelter was being considered a close contact of the person who tested positive, and they would all be tested for the virus.

COVID-19 has upended communities and economies across the globe. Canadian political leaders have taken unprecedented steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the closure of non-essential businesses, schools and universities. These measures, while necessary, have led to a severe drop in economic output and employment.

In response, governments in Canada, as elsewhere, are intervening in economic affairs in a manner not seen in generations.

The scale of the crisis and its exposure of woefully inadequate social safety nets has led to even established conservative voices calling for a permanent growth of the role of government in the economy.

In the longer term, food security for all must guarantee an adequate universal basic income, now inadvertently being piloted by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Public policy now recognizes food is a basic human need and fundamental right: we all need secure incomes if we are to eat and pay the rent. Food handouts are not effective nor sustainable and, if we are all in this together, an affront to human dignity.

Yet universal basic income must not be at the expense of a massive investment in public health and social programs. Non-profits providing meals must be adequately funded, no longer relying on food banks and ad hoc charity. We must bid farewell to government-funded Walmart food banking channelling wasted food to hungry people. Ending food insecurity must be an outcome of successful poverty reduction policies, fair income distribution and progressive taxation.

Housing and homelessness advocates across the country say the COVID-19 crisis has presented an opportunity to keep people housed long after the pandemic has ended.

People in crowded homeless shelters are at greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus since there is little room to isolate from each other.

Cities across the country have opened recreation centres, exhibition halls and hotel rooms in order to provide space and treatment for those that need it.

But advocates say cities should consider following Toronto’s example, and use federal funds to buy up permanent spaces for self-isolation instead.