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THE HOUSING RIGHTS OF HOMELESS PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

Homeless persons with disabilities have certain civil and human rights under federal, state, and city laws, with respect to their application for and use of shelters and transitional housing programs.  Of particular relevance in this regard is the federal Fair Housing Act, a national law that prohibits housing-discrimination everywhere in the country on the basis of disability.  It applies to all types of housing intended as a short or long-term residence, including shelters that house persons for more than a few days, transitional housing facilities, and permanent housing facilities.  It also covers housing provided through dormitory-style sleeping units as well as apartments and single room occupancy units.

 

Under the Fair Housing Act – as well as another national law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, popularly known as the ADA, which outlaws disability-based discrimination in places of public accommodation, which includes, for example, emergency overnight shelters and social service facilities – homeless service providers cannot turn away persons with disabilities simply because of their disabilities or terminate residents because of a disability or disability-related behavior.  However, individuals with disabilities whose behavior would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals are not protected under the Fair Housing Act or the ADA.

 

Homeless service providers are also prohibited under the Fair Housing Act from applying eligibility criteria that would screen out people with disabilities, such as stating that the shelter does not serve people with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, or service animals.  Nor are homeless service providers legally permitted to impose on people with disabilities terms or conditions that are stricter or less favorable than those expected or required of residents without disabilities.

 

In addition, homeless service providers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to prospective or current residents with disabilities.  Reasonable accommodations are changes, exceptions, or adjustments to a program, service, or procedure that will allow a person with a disability to have equal (to persons without disabilities) access to and enjoyment of the housing program.  There must be an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the person’s disability.  Reasonable accommodations need not be provided if they would constitute an undue financial or administrative burden, or if they would be a fundamental alteration of the provider’s program.

 

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:  Waiving a no pet rule for a service animal.  Providing a bed assignment in an accessible location.  Reading the terms of an agreement aloud.  Filling out an application.  Providing alternate shelter options.  Allowing a caregiver to provide services on-site.

Homeless service providers who receive federal funding and engage in discrimination against persons with disabilities would be in violation of not only both the Fair Housing Act and the ADA but Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well.  This federal law prohibits disability-based discrimination nationwide in all programs or activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.

 

Section 504, with a few limited exceptions, prohibits federally-funded homeless service providers from providing, or requiring persons with disabilities to accept, accommodations that are different or separate from those offered to persons without disabilities.  Not only do Section 405 regulations mandate that programs and services be conducted in the most integrated setting appropriate, they also state that it is discriminatory for recipients of federal funding to select sites that have the purpose or effect of excluding qualified persons with disabilities from participating in or being denied the benefits of any federally-subsidized program or activity.  Section 504 regulations also require federally-funded homeless service providers to take appropriate steps to ensure effective communication with applicants, residents, and the public with communication disabilities.  Therefore, they should ensure that that their application and admission processes and the services offered are accessible to and understandable by persons with disabilities.

 

Finally, the ADA, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law make it unlawful to exclude from homeless shelters or any place of social service a person with a disability who is accompanied by a guide dog, hearing dog, or any other service animal, except when that animal behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.  In addition, a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service animal is not required to show proof that the animal is a service animal or to give any verbal or written confirmation to establish his or her disability.

 

IF YOU SUSPECT YOU HAVE BEEN THE VICTIM OF HOUSING DISCRIMINATION, YOU CAN FILE A COMPLAINT WITH ONE OF THESE GOVERNMENT AGENCIES:

 

The New York State Division of Human Rights

One Fordham Plaza, 4th Plaza

Bronx, NY 10458

718-741-8400

Toll-free number:  1-888-392-3644

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development

26 Federal Plaza, Room 3532

New York, NY 10278

212-264-5072

Toll-free number:  1-800-496-4294

 

REFERENCES:

 

  • “Section O: Fair Housing & Civil Rights Laws,” Homelessness Resource Exchange, HUDHRE.info,
  • “Access Rights of People with Disabilities and Their Service Animals,” Lawyers with Disabilities, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York
  • “In from the Cold:  Making Homeless Shelters Accessible to People with Disabilities in the Nation’s Capital, Clearinghouse REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, May-June 2009
  • “Homeless Service Providers and Fair Housing Compliance,” Christian McLeod, Assistant Director, Fair Housing Center of Washington