Disabled Tenants Face Discrimination in NY Shelter Housing

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September 16, 2016; New York Times

After what we saw as a long wait, one of the presidential candidates finally mentioned policies for the disabled. In a speech in Orlando, Florida, Secretary Clinton addressed the lack of job opportunities for some of our most challenged citizens. If employment is lacking, it stands to reason that housing is, as well. In New York City, emergency housing for the disabled can be a nightmare.

We recently reported on the long delays and arduous process to get into a shelter for the city’s homeless. For those with any physical or health challenge, it is much worse. Access difficulties can arise from lack of amenities like ramps, working elevators, grab bars, and doors that open automatically. State and federal laws require such accommodations, but violations do take place. The Legal Aid Society filed a class action suit in 2015 against the city for discrimination at shelters that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act should have prevented.

Some examples, as detailed in the New York Times piece, follow:

  • A woman with multiple sclerosis finds it impossible to see the top of the stove from her scooter. She has to use crutches, which exhausts her. Her neighbors sign a roster for her so she does not have to navigate to the front door. When the woman, who was in the shelter to escape a violent partner, was offered a transfer to another shelter, she stated it would be the sixth one.
  • Another woman, evicted from an apartment with her 16-year-old and 20-year-old children after the death of her husband, has kidney failure and asthma. She was transferred from one shelter to the next because of a long list of difficulties, including the lack of an elevator capable of handling her motorized scooter. Another shelter prevented her from installing an air conditioner, arguing that the electrical system was too old—even though staff had air conditioning in their offices.
  • A third woman, pregnant and with a temporary back injury, requested a first-floor unit instead of the fifth-floor walk-up. The change was denied, and she was told to go back to the intake center to be reassigned. The written response she received stated, “At this facility, it is not going to be: BURGER KING, HAVE IT YOUR WAY.”

These individuals turned to advocates such as the Legal Aid Society and/or filed complaints with the Department of Homeless Services, which is why we know about them. The Society is negotiating with the city and is close to settling, according to Susan Dooha, the executive director for the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The settlement with the Legal Aid Society may assist with ramps and elevators, but it may not come with respect and compassion. It’s not just that homeless people with disabilities have few shelter units that can accommodate their needs; they are on the receiving end of official insults. It comes down to a lack of simple respect—can advocates, lawyers, and officials restore that?—Marian Conway