Homeless People with Service Animals and Homeless Shelters:
Out in the Cold All Year Long
By John Edward Dallas
Once again, it’s winter. And once again, it’s not unheard of for homeless people with disabilities who have service animals to be turned away from or, at the very least, given a hassle about staying at homeless shelters all across our city. The apparent root of the problem in the cold, and warm, weather is: by and large unschooled in even the most elementary rights of people with disabilities, staff at homeless shelters routinely but mistakenly and doggedly regard service animals accompanying persons with disabilities as pets – animal sidekicks tagging along faithfully but purposelessly after their vagrant masters.
The reality, however, is that service animals are not pets. Quite the contrary, they are working animals. Or better yet, trained to perform functions and tasks essential to their owners’ ability and human right to live independent and full lives on a par with people without disabilities, service animals are bona-fide aides and assistants to people with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities.
By the same token, service animals can also be considered living versions of assistive devices such as canes and walkers, eyeglasses and hearing aids, and reachers and grabbers. After all, they perform the exact same functions as these ordinary but immensely empowering independent-living technologies. Service animals guide people who are blind or have visual impairments. They detect sounds for people are deaf or hard of hearing. They pick up and carry objects for people with mobility and visual disabilities.
Furthermore, they pull wheelchairs for people with mobility disabilities. They act as a physical support for people with mobility-balance impairments, heart disease, and lung disease. They provide emotional support to individuals with mental and psychological disabilities such as depression and anxiety. They even assist individuals with epilepsy, warning them about oncoming seizures.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and New York State law prohibit homeless shelters as places of public accommodation from denying or restricting access to an individual because she or he is accompanied by a service animal. In addition, it is against the law for shelters to request individuals to provide a license or any other form of documentation for their service animal, to charge any type of fee to individuals with a service animal, or to require such individuals to explain the nature of their disability much less its connection to their use of a service animal. (Incidentally, legally and practically, services animals are not limited to dogs.)
Rudimentary information about the indispensable role that service animals play in their users’ lives and basic facts about the legal rights of people who use service animals should be disseminated by the city Department of Homeless Services to all the private providers who have contracts with it – and to shelter providers that do not. Broad outreach of this nature would not only help bring in out of the cold a good number of people with physical and mental disabilities, in the process saving and preserving lives (the service animals’ included). It would also finally make our city truly a mosaic – an international exemplar of equality, humanity, and inclusiveness – with respect to people with disabilities, in all seasons.
The writer is the coordinator of a cooperative housing education project and the disability-rights advocate for Cooper Square Committee.