The New York Times | Under Settlement, City Shelters Will Do More for the Disabled
May 18, 2017
By Nikita Stewart
New York City’s homeless services agency, under a settlement reached this week, has agreed to do more to accommodate homeless people who are disabled.
The Center for Independence of the Disabled, one of the groups that filed the class-action lawsuit, counts 32 beds that are accessible to disabled people in the city’s shelter system, which houses tens of thousands of people and is augmented by thousands of hotel rooms and so-called cluster apartments.
The center and the Legal Aid Society filed the lawsuit two years ago after several years of trying to help disabled people get the services and accommodations on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Homeless Services has “historically done a very bad job of meeting people’s needs,” said Joshua Goldfein, a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society. “The only way to make them change the way they do business was to do it in a comprehensive way.”
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.
The timeline laid out in the settlement coincides with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s five-year plan to open 90 new shelters and to expand 30 existing ones while ending the use of hotels and cluster apartments. The cluster apartments, or units within private buildings, are sometimes in buildings that lack elevators or are poorly maintained, making it difficult for people with disabilities. “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.
Shaniqua Jackson, one of the plaintiffs, said the agency had initially placed her family in a shelter in Brooklyn, far from doctors and services in the Bronx that she needed for her son, who was born premature, had chronic lung disease and used a ventilator, a gastrointestinal tube and other equipment at the time.
After Ms. Jackson received legal assistance, the agency placed her, her partner, her daughter and her son, now 2, in a studio apartment in the Bronx. The family of four, already squeezed into the tiny space, could barely make room for the medical equipment and for the nurses and therapist who frequently visited to treat her son.
The family, which was later placed in more spacious accommodations, is scheduled to move this week into a permanent apartment, with the help of a rental voucher. Ms. Jackson, 28, said the settlement would establish policies that would help others in the future. “They can get the help I didn’t get at first,” she said.
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.
“I went through the most horrible time,” said Ms. Diaz, who moved into an apartment in December after more than two years in the shelter system. “I know it’s a shelter, but we are human beings.”