Today’s Read: Under Settlement, City Shelters Will Do More for Homeless People With Disabilities

In a tremendous victory for the many homeless New Yorkers with disabilities who struggle to navigate the shelter system, a new class-action settlement will require the City to ensure that homeless shelters and intake offices in all five boroughs are accessible to people with disabilities. The lawsuit was brought against the City in 2015 on behalf of clients of The Legal Aid Society, Coalition for the Homeless, and the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

Currently, much of the shelter system overseen by the Department of Homeless Services is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act despite the fact that roughly 42 percent of shelter residents have a disability, compared to just 12 percent of the NYC population. Without proper accommodations, many homeless New Yorkers encounter daily barriers in shelters, and others have resorted to sleeping on the street, in the subway, or in parks. The Coalition outlined several of the obstacles facing homeless people with disabilities in our State of the Homeless 2017 report, giving the City a “D” grade for disability accommodations. Today’s settlement marks a key step toward rectifying these longstanding issues, by mandating the City to retrofit existing facilities and ensure that future shelters have appropriate accommodations.

According to The Legal Aid Society’s press release:

The Legal Aid Society, White & Case and the New York City Department of Homeless Services today announced a class action settlement requiring the City to ensure that homeless shelters and intake offices in all five boroughs are accessible to people with disabilities.

Many intake offices and shelters are currently out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and as a result, the City has committed in this settlement to address deficiencies so it can provide reasonable accommodations for homeless people with disabilities seeking shelter.

This lawsuit was initially brought in 2015 against the City on behalf of Legal Aid clients, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York and converted to a class action lawsuit on August 3rd, 2016.

“A right to shelter means nothing if the proper accommodations aren’t in place to guarantee access for all,” said Adriene Holder, Attorney-In-Charge of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “This settlement tears down a barrier that has blocked homeless New Yorkers for far too long from a bed, hot meals and critical services. A prerequisite for solving the City’s homelessness crises starts with safeguarding and accommodating access to programs and services for those who need them the most.”

“New York City is one of the few places where there is a legal right to shelter. However, when homeless New Yorkers’ disabilities are not accommodated in shelters, they are denied this basic right and must face life threatening conditions. We’re proud of the work that we have done with The Legal Aid Society to reach this settlement to improve and save the lives of disabled, homeless New Yorkers,” said White & Case partner Paul Carberry.

“We are very pleased that the resolution to this litigation promises to provide the long-awaited reasonable accommodations and accessible shelters our homeless clients living with disabilities need. The changes required by the Butler settlement must be swiftly and fully implemented in order to ensure equal access to life-saving shelter for homeless New Yorkers with disabilities. We thank our representatives, our fellow plaintiffs, the City, and the Court – and we look forward to working together on the timely implementation of our agreements,” said Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy, Coalition for the Homeless.

Nikita Stewart covered the settlement in The New York Times:

The homeless services agency agreed to survey its shelters, track requests for accommodations, train staff members and take other measures to monitor progress.

Steven Banks, commissioner of the Department of Social Services, said the city had already implemented some of the obligations outlined in the settlement, including hiring a director of disability affairs.

Under the settlement, the city’s shelter system should, within five years, have the capacity to accommodate any disabled person. That could mean providing a sign language interpreter, a refrigerator for someone whose medication must stay cold, bathrooms with adequate facilities for people with physical disabilities or shorter waits for a person who is autistic and may not be able to sit through the long process of applying for shelter.

“Making sure that we have an accessible shelter system is an important element of the transformation and reimagining of the shelter system,” said Mr. Banks, who was attorney-in-chief at Legal Aid before joining the mayor’s administration in 2014.

Susan Dooha, the executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, said she hoped the settlement would mark a “sea change.” She pointed to barriers throughout the shelter system that have made everyday living difficult and even dangerous for disabled people, such as the ability to use service animals and a lack of accessible evacuation routes.

Roselle Diaz, 50, one of the plaintiffs, said she remembered feeling trapped and being frightened through a fire drill because she could not make it down the stairs by herself in a shelter with no elevator. Ms. Diaz, whose health problems include Bell’s palsy, diabetes and asthma, uses a wheelchair.

The settlement outlines that the City must:

  • Provide reasonable accommodations to ensure meaningful access to homeless shelters
  • Survey existing shelters and offices to identify barriers to access
  • Make accessible shelters available where people need them, so that people with disabilities are not segregated from the general population
  • Ensure that emergency plans recognize the particular needs of people with disabilities
  • Develop procedures to secure the shelter placements of residents who are hospitalized
  • Retrain staff consistent with the City’s legal obligations
  • Provide communication accommodations for individuals who are seeing or hearing impaired
  • Modify existing procedures to ensure they do not discriminate against people with disabilities
  • Assess the expected demand for shelter by people with disabilities and develop a plan to provide sufficient shelter to meet that demand