Today’s Read: Judge Halts Homeless Hotel Transfers Until City Accommodates Residents With Disabilities

Just as the dangerously contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has become the dominant strain causing rapidly rising COVID-19 case rates, Mayor de Blasio has inexplicably rushed to move homeless single adults out of the hotels that have been used to provide safe shelter during the pandemic and return them to crowded, dorm-style shelters. Despite repeated warnings by the Coalition that such premature moves are dangerous, the Mayor has stubbornly continued with his ill-conceived plan to move thousands of single adults from hotels to congregate shelters by an arbitrary end-of-July deadline.

Unfortunately, many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers have been falling through bureaucratic cracks created by the City’s chaotic rush to move them out of the hotels, where many had safely resided and received services for more than a year. Coalition shelter monitors, caseworkers, and our colleagues with other organizations met with dozens of hotel residents with disabilities who have been denied their legal rights to reasonable accommodations of their disabling conditions during the haphazard process.

With mounting evidence of the chaos caused by the abrupt and unnecessary returns to congregate shelters, on July 8th, The Legal Aid Society and Jenner & Block LLP, on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless, Center for Independence of the Disabled, and homeless New Yorkers, and in coordination with the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, filed a motion in Butler v. City of New York – a previous legal victory concerning disability-based discrimination in the City’s shelter system. The July 8th court papers documented numerous deficiencies in the City’s hasty process, including the sudden and inappropriate uprooting of people with physical and psychiatric disabilities without due consideration for the accommodations they may need to safely and fully access shelters and other support at Department of Homeless Services (DHS) facilities. As The Legal Aid Society explained:

“Now, the City is circumventing its legal obligation under Butler v. City of New York to afford each class member an individualized consideration in determining whether their disability requires that they remain in a hotel room or be transferred to another site that can accommodate their disability.

Instead, the City is moving class members en masse in a rushed process that puts many of them at risk and subject to irreparable harm. Moreover, many of these New Yorkers, who are at high risk of severe consequences from COVID-19, are living in close quarters with a relatively unvaccinated population which, despite the City’s progress in reducing COVID-19 occurrence, creates risk of a new super-spreader event.

Since the transfers began, numerous clients have been told they are being moved without being informed of their right to reasonable accommodations (RA) for their disabilities. Those clients who have already been transferred to a congregate shelter were relocated without receiving proper consideration for accommodations for their disabilities, despite serious physical and mental health disabilities.”

Dozens of examples outlined in the legal papers clearly show the City’s systemic failure to accommodate homeless New Yorkers with disabilities. Following a hearing on July 13th, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Gregory H. Woods issued a ruling halting the transfer of homeless New Yorkers with disabilities until DHS modifies their process to ensure residents are more appropriately assessed and placed. Judge Woods’ order requires DHS to give hotel residents with disabilities seven days’ notice in advance of a move, to schedule a meeting with each resident to discuss their access needs at least five days prior to the move, and for staff to employ a script to ensure they are accurately informing individuals of their rights. We expect that this legal victory will help these most vulnerable New Yorkers get the help they need and to which they are legally entitled.

Deborah B. Diamant, Esq., the Coalition’s Director of Government Relations and Legal Affairs, said in response to the ruling:

“Coalition for the Homeless is very pleased with today’s decision and thanks our lawyers at The Legal Aid Society and Jenner & Block LLP for their dedication to our clients. As the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system, we will monitor the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) compliance with today’s order, and expect DHS to follow its legal obligations to ensure that our clients with disabilities and/or medical conditions are assigned to placements that best meet their needs. However, we are disappointed that we had to seek judicial intervention to force DHS to end its feverish rush to exit hotels and send individuals back to congregate shelters where they are at greater risk for contracting the virus that causes COVID-19. No matter how many premature, city-funded reopening parties Mayor de Blasio holds, the pandemic continues and our clients still need access to hotel rooms and permanent, affordable housing to protect themselves.”

David Brand wrote about the ruling for City Limits:

Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Jenner & Block say that nonprofit staff at multiple locations told residents they had no right to prevent the moves back into congregate shelters—incorrect guidance that represented the “systemic” extent of the discrimination, lawyers said.

“These things should not be implemented in the abstract,” said attorney Dawn Smalls of Jenner & Block. “People are not being given the required screening and are not being given the required notice.”

“This indicates a lack of capacity, a lack of training and a lack of process that needs to be remedied,” she added.

The attorneys filed the motion July 8 on behalf of about 90 disabled shelter residents, including some with multiple serious respiratory ailments and mobility impairments who DHS moved into barracks-like shelters without appropriate accessibility measures.

One woman, identified as HZ, uses a wheelchair and has several severe conditions, including strokes and kidney disease, but was transported to a shelter on a hill she could not navigate. Another, AG, was ordered out of a hotel and into a shelter without a working elevator despite submitting a request for reasonable accommodation, the lawsuit says.

People experiencing homelessness and their advocates have sounded the alarm about the risk of another wave of COVID-19 in city shelters, as a population with a relatively low vaccination rate crams back into shared rooms where residents sleep a few feet apart.

Shelter residents who need assistance requesting a reasonable accommodation may call the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention hotline at 1-888-358-2384.

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