The city must provide written notice to shelter residents at least a week before scheduled moves out of hotels, and ensure those with disabilities are informed of the right to request “reasonable accommodations” at least five days before a transfer, the judge ruled.
At a rally in June, shelter residents and advocates protested the city’s decision to move homeless New Yorkers back to congregate shelters.
A federal judge on Tuesday halted the transfer of homeless New Yorkers out of hotel rooms for another week and ordered city officials to ensure that disabled shelter residents access accommodations that best meet their health needs.
District Judge Gregory Woods of the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of a collection of homeless New Yorkers with disabilities who charged the city with violating their rights by rushing them from hotel rooms—rented by the city to limit the spread of COVID-19—back into shared group shelters without considering their individual needs. The ruling was the latest decision in an ongoing class action lawsuit, filed in 2017, that looks to force the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to accommodate the health and accessibility needs of residents with disabilities.
“The public has an interest in ensuring the rights of disabled homeless persons, who may be among the most vulnerable in our society, are protected,” Woods said during a lengthy ruling.
He specifically ordered DHS to provide written notice to shelter residents at least seven days before scheduled moves out of hotels, and to ensure that staff from nonprofits contracting with DHS meet with disabled shelter residents to inform them of the right to request so-called “reasonable accommodations” at least five days before a transfer. Staff must inform them of those rights using a script that DHS has not yet drafted, Woods said.
The city is already bound to versions of those requirements, but Woods said they have failed to consistently implement them after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered homeless adults out of 60 hotels rented out during the pandemic. Ignoring the right to reasonable accommodation could result in “irreparable harm” to residents’ “psychological, physical and mental health,” Woods said.
The new requirements mean officials will have to schedule meetings with all of the roughly 5,000 people still staying in shelters in order to assess their needs. The city has so far emptied 23 hotels and transferred 3,685 single adults back into shelters or to rooms in other hotels as of July 9, according to court documents.
Under DHS rules, all residents can apply for reasonable accommodations and must receive a decision by shelter administrators before any transfer.
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.
The judge’s order will not alter de Blasio’s plan to close all 60 hotels and return people to shelters, but Smalls told reporters that the decision bolsters protections that otherwise received only lip service from the city.
“The city’s plan was abstract, aspirational, a plan on paper,” she said. “Today’s order puts some teeth to it.”
Legal Aid lawyer Joshua Goldfein said ensuring the rights of people with disabilities isn’t just about protecting them from COVID-19. He said reasonable accommodations mean placing people in shelters near public transportation.