Saturday, December 13, 2008

Justice Dept.: D.C. homeless shelters must be made accessible

From The Washington Times:

The Justice Department announced a settlement Dec. 12 that requires the District to make homeless shelters more accessible to the disabled.

The department accused the District of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide adequate accommodations for the disabled.

District officials estimate the "comprehensive plan" they are required to develop as part of the settlement would cost $4 million to $5 million.

A January survey by a contractor who administers the District's shelter program found 23 percent of the District's homeless residents have a physical disability, 19 percent suffer from severe mental illness and 2 percent have AIDS or HIV.

The District agreed to the settlement rather than contest the Justice Department's allegations through a lawsuit.

The settlement requires the District to develop a plan to make shelters more accessible, provide training for shelter personnel, develop policies to ensure accessibility, and improve communication with the disabled. The settlement cites blind, hearing-and-speech-impaired people as having the greatest need for better communication.

The District also is required to improve oversight of contractors who manage the shelter program and hold public hearings on its accessibility plan.

"This settlement represents the District's commitment to the letter and spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act," D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said.

The ADA is a 1990 federal law that forbids discrimination based on disability and requires public buildings, programs and employment centers to be made accessible to the disabled through "reasonable accommodations."

The Justice Department investigated the District's shelter program after receiving complaints of what it called "widespread ADA violations."

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless estimates that more than 6,000 people are homeless in the District on an average day. Among them, 47 percent are "chronically homeless." Families represent more than 30 percent of the District's homeless population, according to the foundation.

Amber W. Harding, staff attorney for the group, described the importance of the settlement for the District's disabled homeless population as "huge."

"It's a very high-level acknowledgement of the importance of people's civil rights," Ms. Harding said. "Something as simple as a [wheelchair] ramp is the difference between someone having a roof over their head when it's freezing outside or having to stay out on the street."

She has filed three lawsuits against the District on behalf of disabled homeless persons and settled two of them.