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.

Adi Talwar

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.

Read More: As They Return to Group Shelters, Homeless New Yorkers Make Vaccine Choices

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 or close to medical providers, thus acknowledging that the “needs of the client are more complex than just what’s in the four walls of the room.”

During the hearing, lawyers for the city denied that DHS had engaged in systemic discrimination and told the court that the system of transfers may have been “imperfect” but the problems cited by homeless New Yorkers were isolated incidents.

In a statement following the decision, a DHS spokesperson said the agency was pleased that the judge upheld their plan to move people back into shelters with only a few “minor adjustments.”

“We plan to move forward next week, and we remain committed to meeting our clients’ unique needs and granting accommodations as requested, as we have in hundreds of cases already,” the spokesperson added.

DHS did not respond to questions about how they will demonstrate compliance with the seven-day notice and five-day meeting rules.

In response to the ruling, advocates expressed some optimism but sought to direct attention to the need for permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, rather than temporary lodging in a hotel room or group shelter.

“This decision will help protect the health and safety of thousands of homeless people who are being rushed back to congregate shelters based on the Mayor’s cruel plan,” said Helen Strom, Homeless Advocacy Unit supervisor at the Safety Net Project. “Homeless New Yorkers are calling on the City to keep them in safe hotel rooms and focus their energies on helping people move from hotel rooms into permanent housing. The mayor should listen.”

About a mile away, in the lobby of the Department of Social Services (DSS) office building, a dozen advocates and New Yorkers experiencing homelessness tried to make the same point a few hours before the court hearing.

The demonstrators, from the organization VOCAL-NY, demanded to speak with Commissioner Steve Banks and officials from DSS, which oversees DHS, about moving people into homes and immediately implementing Intro. 146, legislation passed by the City Council in May that would increase the value of the city’s rent subsidies for homeless New Yorkers.

Six of the demonstrators were arrested.

VOCAL-NY organizer Joseph Loonam, one of the arrestees, said they had no intention of being arrested and were trying to leave the building when cops cuffed them.

“We went into the lobby with the intention of putting pressure on DHS to meet with us, to introduce Intro. 146 and to focus their energy on getting people into affordable housing,” Loonam said. “They’re really missing an opportunity here and by trying to force us into business as usual they’re going to put thousands of people in harm’s way.”

“This is an opportunity to develop a new vision for our city,” he added.