Tuesday, August 26, 2008

California advocacy group sues on behalf of disabled homeless people

From The San Francisco Chronicle:

SAN FRANCISCO -- A Berkeley nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 27 against San Francisco's Care Not Cash program, alleging "pervasive discrimination" against disabled homeless people.

The lawsuit says the city's homeless program illegally prevents disabled people who receive federal aid from accessing certain services, such as the reservation system for shelter beds.

City officials called the lawsuit frivolous Aug. 27. There is no shortage of beds for disabled people, and the Care Not Cash program is open to anyone, disabled or not, who does not receive federal assistance, said Trent Rhorer, executive director of San Francisco's Human Services Agency, which manages the city's shelter and welfare programs.

The lawsuit filed by Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates states that because most disabled homeless people receive some form of federal aid, they are excluded from the San Francisco benefits that are available to everyone else.

"If you're not in Care Not Cash, you can't make a reservation for a bed and you're thrown into this Byzantine system where every day you have to stand in line and try to find a bed," said attorney Sidney Wolinsky, the founder of Disability Rights Advocates. "It becomes survival of the fittest, and disabled people lose and end up sleeping in alleys."

The Care Not Cash program was developed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and became a cornerstone of his 2004 campaign. Newsom and the Board of Supervisors are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Care Not Cash cut county welfare payments to homeless people in San Francisco in exchange for shelter guarantees and other services, such as counseling to help people find permanent housing. About a quarter of San Francisco's 1,300 shelter beds are set aside for Care Not Cash participants, who can reserve beds up to 45 days in advance.

People who do not qualify for county welfare - including anyone who receives Social Security or other federal benefits - are not able to participate in Care Not Cash, and therefore can't reserve beds. That means they may have to wait in lines some nights for a bed to become available.

Rhorer noted that disabled people who have not applied for federal aid can join the Care Not Cash program; at any given time, about a third of Care Not Cash participants are disabled, he said.

"Care Not Cash serves a subset of the homeless population: those receiving county welfare. It's a rational and nondiscriminatory policy," he said.

Rhorer added that 75 to 100 shelter beds go unused each night.

"They're assuming the shelter system is full and there are massive turn-aways every night, and it's simply not true," Rhorer said. "We feel this is a frivolous suit that's entirely without merit."