The legal motion, filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, accuses the city of a one-size-fits-all strategy that violates the rights of disabled shelter residents to accessible dwellings.

Adi Talwar

A rally across the from Gracie Mansion in June, protesting the city’s decision to move homeless adults out of hotels and back into congregate shelters.

A group of homeless New Yorkers with disabilities are taking legal action to halt the city’s plan to move them from COVID-safe hotel rooms back into group shelters, accusing the city of a one-size-fits-all strategy that violates their right to accessible dwellings.

A handful of shelter residents and three advocacy organizations, including the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project and the Coalition for the Homeless, filed a motion in Manhattan federal court Thursday as part of an ongoing class action lawsuit compelling the city to meet the needs of disabled shelter residents.

In court documents, the plaintiffs accuse city officials “of following political pressure to shut down the hotel program and move approximately 8,000 residents in a few weeks’ time.”

“The results have not only been chaotic but also potentially dangerous for class members,” they add. “Shelter residents with significant, obvious disabilities have been moved or threatened with moves to sites that are not accessible to them.”

The challenge comes three weeks after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would clear roughly 8,000 homeless New Yorkers from hotel rooms by the end of July. The city began renting the rooms in April 2020 to protect the homeless from the coronavirus, but de Blasio says the special accommodations are no longer necessary with nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers vaccinated against COVID-19 and the number of new cases continuing to drop. 

But the plaintiffs, represented by the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Jenner & Block LLP, say the city’s Department of Homeless Services failed to provide proper notice or consider appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities and serious health problems, as required by law.

“The city’s rushed decision to arbitrarily move thousands homeless New Yorkers from safe accommodations back to local, crowded shelters is both illegal and inhumane,” said Legal Aid staff attorney Josh Goldfein in a statement.

Between June 22 and June 24, DHS and shelter contractors moved about 650 homeless New Yorkers from hotels into congregate shelters, often in violation of disability rights laws, the complaint states. The transfers have continued, with more than 1,000 people moved out of Manhattan hotels in the first week of July.

As part of a 2017 agreement reached in the litigation, Butler v. the City of New York, DHS officials committed to performing an individual assessment of the needs of every homeless New Yorker. Under state law, DHS and shelter officials must provide written notice at least 48 hours before any move. The rules also allow individuals to request what is known as “reasonable accommodation” to obtain placement that meets their health and mobility needs. A shelter director must make a decision on the request before a move.

As advocates have documented, many shelter residents were moved abruptly without sufficient notice or with reasonable accommodation requests pending.

“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,” Goldfein said.

City officials have informed shelter residents that they will not consider reasonable accommodations for any mental health issues, the motion states. The documents cite the experience of various New Yorkers moved out of shelters in recent weeks despite their serious disabilities and in violation of the Butler agreement and state laws.

One plaintiff, identified as SH in the court documents, has the autoimmune disease fibromyalgia as well as brain stem encephalomyelitis and chronic musculoskeletal pain and needs a single room or access to an elevator. SH was moved out of a hotel on July 7 and transported to multiple shelters before receiving a room in another hotel, according to the motion.

Another plaintiff, referred to as PM, uses a wheelchair and is seeking knee joint replacement surgery but was moved to a congregate shelter without accessible bathrooms on June 22. A third, identified as HZ, uses a wheelchair and was transferred from a hotel to a congregate shelter on a steep hill.

In recent weeks, de Blasio has said the use of commercial hotels as shelter was always intended to be temporary and that using the rooms for homeless New Yorkers complicates the city’s tourism rebound.

DHS has highlighted intensive efforts to provide COVID testing and vaccine access to New Yorkers living in shelters, as well as their work helping thousands of families and individuals obtain permanent housing and leave shelters. Nearly 19,000 shelter residents secured permanent housing in 2020, including 11,134 who used city rental assistance programs, the agency said.

“The health, safety, and wellbeing of the New Yorkers we serve as they get back on their feet is our number one priority–that’s why we’re continuing our comprehensive COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs, making it as easy as possible for our clients to get tested and vaccinated by delivering these free, vital resources directly to clients where they are,” said DHS spokesperson Isaac McGinn in a statement.

“As we phase out the temporary use of COVID-period commercial hotels, we and our not-for-profit provider partners are also working closely with clients to assess each individual’s unique needs and grant their Reasonable Accommodation (RA) requests, through a process agreed to in court, with hundreds of accommodations already granted as we work to meet those needs,” McGinn added.

DHS has granted hundreds of reasonable accommodation requests, the agency said.

Since April 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Administration has reimbursed the city for the significant cost of hotels rooms. FEMA, however, told City Limits they decided to stop paying for the rooms once Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted a statewide emergency order and de Blasio said the city would “fully reopen” by July 1.

The decision to use the hotel rooms earned praise from homeless New Yorkers and their advocates who said the single- and double-occupancy spaces protected vulnerable individuals from the deadly illness while enabling them to stabilize their health and various needs.

They say they fear a resurgence of COVID-19 with the majority of shelter residents still unvaccinated.

“We are routinely speaking with people who are terrified and in mental health crises as a result of this pervasively chaotic process,” said Helen Strom, Homeless Advocacy Unit supervisor at the Safety Net Project. “Some individuals are returning to the streets. There are alternatives.”

Strom, whose organization has visited hotels across the city to prevent unlawful transfers, called on the city to halt all moves unless they are to permanent, affordable housing.

“These hotel evictions are cruel, dangerous, illegal and racist. 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,” she said.