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Lawyers Ask Judge Keep Disabled NYC Homeless Population in Hotels to Prevent a ‘New Super-Spreader Event’ at Unsanitary Shelters


Mayor Bill de Blasio

A coalition of New York City legal and advocacy groups on Thursday asked a judge to shut down plans by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to move some members of the city’s homeless population out of hotel rooms and into “congregate shelters.”

“The class members of the lawsuit all have disabilities and/or serious health issues that put them at a higher risk of severe consequences if they were to contract COVID-19,” the groups, which include the Legal Aid Society and law firm Jenner & Block, said in a joint press release.  “The City’s decision to place them in hotel rooms allowed them to safely socially distance, which literally saved lives. In addition, COVID-19 aside, the hotel rooms provided a necessary shelter accommodation for many with disabilities.”

The groups alleged that the mayor and the city were “circumventing” legal obligations secured through a broader litigation strategy styled as Butler v. City of New York. Those obligations, the groups said, required officials to give each homeless person “individualized consideration” as to the nature of any disability and the possible effects of moving each person into “crowded” shelters.

“Instead, the City is moving class members en masse in a rushed process that puts many of them at risk,” the press release said. “[M]any of these New Yorkers, who are at high risk of severe consequences from COVID-19, are living in close quarters with a relatively unvaccinated population which, despite the City’s progress in reducing COVID-19 occurrence, creates risk of a new super-spreader event.”

The litigation seeks a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, among other forms of relief, to stop the moves. Those transfers are said to date back to at least June 22 and allegedly already affected at least 650 people. Some 8,000 people are at risk of being moved “in a few weeks’ time,” according to court papers filed by the groups in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The legal filings and the press release both document a series of case studies.

One homeless individual “who uses a wheelchair and requires joint replacement in his right knee” was moved from a so-called “de-densification” (read: uncrowded) hotel to a “congregate shelter with no accessible showers or bathrooms.”

Another “has an autoimmune disease (fibromyalgia), brain stem encephalomyelitis, and chronic musculoskeletal pain, and requires a single-occupancy room on the ground floor or access to an elevator since she cannot use stairs or ambulate for significant periods.” This individual “also recently had heart surgery and suffers regular, tiny strokes.” Yet she was moved to “multiple shelters” without legally required warnings; she “missed two medical appointments, further adding to her distress,” the documents allege.

Another individual—who is said to require special medical equipment to treat sleep apnea—was pulled from one hotel with “no written notice or explanation” and sent to another hotel, where the staff didn’t know he was expected and had no rooms available for him to stay. He eventually ended up in a shelter “with fresh urine on the floor, a urine-stained mattress, and no air conditioning or ventilation, which has caused aggravation of his sleep apnea.”

The individual case studies continue. The legal groups, on behalf of the homeless, also accuse the city of discrimination against certain types of disabilities, namely “mental health diagnoses.”

“The City’s rushed decision to arbitrarily move thousands of homeless New Yorkers from safe accommodations back to local, crowded shelters is both illegal and inhumane,” said Josh Goldfein, Staff Attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “Under Butler [the underlying litigation], the City is required to conduct a thorough assessment of every homeless New Yorker who requests a reasonable accommodation and for those New Yorkers whom the City knows has a disability, health ailment or other issue. With these transfers, that process was entirely ignored, and we are asking the Court to enjoin the City from making such transfers until each and every homeless person is screened and provided an accommodation specific to their need.”

“The program put in place to shelter homeless New Yorkers in hotel rooms during the height of the pandemic saved lives. It continues to serve as an important accommodation to those with disabilities as defined by the ADA, and those at heightened risk to COVID-19,” said Jenner & Block Partner Dawn Smalls. “As the rates in the City decrease, City can phase out and scale the hotel program down – but not without ensuring that its obligations under Butler to give appropriate notice and consider the needs of each shelter resident are met. We filed this lawsuit to ensure that they do so.”

“The pandemic is not over, especially for our clients, many of whom have disabilities and medical conditions that place them at significant risk for severe complications or death should they contract the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Deborah B. Diamant, Esq. of the Coalition for the Homeless. “As the court-appointed monitor of New York City’s single adult shelter system, the Coalition for the Homeless is witnessing daily the City’s egregious violations of the Butler v. City of New York settlement, which requires DHS to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and ensure that DHS facilities and services are accessible to all individuals, regardless of disability status. In order to meet an arbitrary deadline set by an unpopular mayor trying to save face, DHS is repeatedly and tragically failing to accommodate the needs of our disabled and medically vulnerable clients. DHS must temporarily pause these moves and correct course before homeless New Yorkers suffer any more harm at the hands of the City agency mandated to assist them.”

“These hotel evictions are cruel, dangerous, illegal and racist,” said Helen Strom of the Urban Justice Center. “It is overwhelmingly Black and brown New Yorkers that are being haphazardly thrown out of hotels, typically located in white neighborhoods and tourist centers, and sent into unsafe shelter spaces with more than a dozen people to a room. Contractors with the Department of Homeless Services, moving forward with mandates by DHS, have used misinformation, coercion and intimidation to push people out of the hotels. We are routinely speaking with people who are terrified and in mental health crises as a result of this pervasively chaotic process. Some individuals are returning to the streets. There are alternatives. First, the City must immediately halt all transfers in the interest of the safety of the thousands of people in DHS hotels. Second, they must implement an emergency plan to move people from hotels into permanent housing. This can be achieved by enacting an emergency rule to implement Intro 146 and increase CityFHEPS voucher amounts, using available Section 8 vouchers allocated through the American Rescue Plan, and using all vacant HPD apartments.”

“The City endangers the lives of people with disabilities who are at higher risk of COVID-19 by wholesale dumping them in shelters that are not safe and where their disability-related needs will be ignored,” said Susan Dooha, Executive Director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled.

A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department did not immediately respond to the lawsuit when contacted for comment by the New York Daily News.

De Blasio said in mid-June that the moves of some 8,000 people could be accomplished because New York City’s novel coronavirus numbers were plummeting, the New York Times reported.

“It is time to move homeless folks who were in hotels for a temporary period of time back to shelters where they can get the support they need,” the mayor said on June 26th.

Read the litigation below:

[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.