A settlement just reached in Butler v. The City of New York should make shelter services for homeless New Yorkers with disabilities more accessible over time. The settlement, which will take effect in mid-November, arose from a lawsuit against New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
The plaintiffs are a number of New Yorkers with disabilities who sought shelter from DHS and found a system that did not accommodate their needs. Additional plaintiffs are two advocacy groups: The Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY) and the Coalition for the Homeless. All of the plaintiffs are represented by the Legal Aid Society.
The lawsuit outlines violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and numerous other federal, state and city laws throughout New York City’s shelter system.
While people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, the plaintiffs allege that DHS does not have a process in place to assess an applicant’s disabilities or need for related accommodations during the shelter intake process. Even worse, DHS intake workers routinely refuse to consider requests for a disability-related accommodation – even when the need for one is readily apparent – unless the person seeking shelter presents documents from a medical provider establishing the need for an accommodation.
Intake materials are not provided in formats that are accessible to people with impaired hearing or vision. And while applying for shelter can take many hours over a number of days, people who rely on power wheelchairs, oxygen machines, and other medical devices are often not provided with electrical outlets to keep this vital equipment charged.
DHS has a policy of denying an applicant shelter if it finds that other housing is available to them, without taking into account whether the available housing is accessible or can accommodate the applicant’s disabilities.
For example, in the case of the lead plaintiff, Sandra Butler, DHS found that she could live with her mother, refusing to take into account that her mother’s house is physically inaccessible. Ms. Butler, who uses a walker and cannot climb stairs, has sickle cell disease, chronic asthma, and a seizure disorder. DHS’s decision to refuse her shelter left Ms. Butler living in a car parked outside her mother’s house in the winter, with an extension cord running from the house to the car to power her oxygen machine.
The plaintiffs also allege that people with disabilities are routinely sent to facilities that cannot accommodate their needs. Examples cited include shelters with inaccessible bathrooms; the placement of people with sight or vision disabilities in shelters that cannot accommodate their communication needs; and people with medically-required diets or the need to keep medication refrigerated placed in shelters without kitchens.
For the vast number of New Yorkers with disabilities who require the services of a home care aide, the City has just 32 beds available, all of them at Barrier Free Living, which has a strong partnership with ICS.
The long-term picture can be especially crazy-making. Every person accepted into a DHS shelter is required to have an independent living plan focused on getting them into permanent housing. The plaintiffs here allege that people with disabilities are often pressured by DHS staff to accept placements in inaccessible housing and, if they refuse, are told they are not complying with their independent living plan, which places them at risk of losing their shelter placement.
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, nationwide more than 40 percent of people in homeless shelters have a disability. In New York City, it may well be more, as we have a higher proportion of poor people with disabilities and a housing market that does not accommodate them. Against this background, a speedy implementation of the Butler settlement agreement could not be more urgent.
According to Legal Aid attorney Kathryn Kliff, “The settlement will result in the City changing its policies, practices, and facilities to make them more accessible to people with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations. It will also require DHS to train its staff on the rights of people with disabilities, as well as making it easier for disabled individuals to request reasonable accommodations in shelter.”
Specifically, under the settlement, the City must:
- Hire a Director of Disability Affairs to ensure policies are created that give people with disabilities meaningful access to DHS shelter services
- Hire Access and Functional Needs Coordinators to work in each DHS intake office and assessment shelter
- Educate all staff who interact with shelter applicants or residents about the laws pertaining to disability discrimination and DHS policies implementing disability rights
- Provide intake staff with a menu of specific accommodations that may be provided
- Reduce the demand for medical proof of the need for an accommodation by intake staff
- Hire an independent consultant to identify physical barriers to access and develop a remediation plan
- Keep records of the accommodations an individual has requested or been granted and ensure that these records are available to staff at all shelters
The settlement also requires the City to regularly assess the current and anticipated need for disability accommodations in shelters. The implementation of the settlement terms will be monitored by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who can bring enforcement actions back to the court if the City fails to comply. You can read the full settlement agreement here.