People With Disabilities in Chicago Can’t Access Homeless Shelters: Lawsuit

Advocates sue city urging change for people with disabilities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, along with Commissioner Lisa Morrison of Family & Support Services, are under fire after being named in a lawsuit that claims a woman with disabilities was turned away from multiple homeless shelters because of her disability.

Laura Martin had to wait three nights for the city to assist her forcing her to find shelter in the emergency room.

“Some of the most vulnerable people in our city are completely being denied access,” said Diane O’Connell, a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless attorney. “I mean, (the plaintiff) had to sleep in a hospital emergency room for multiple nights because there was no help for her.”

Due to her rheumatoid arthritis, Martin has difficulty walking for more than one block and is unable to climb stairs. She is suing the parties involved for being in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to offer proper accommodations to the disabled population.

“Even though it’s tough enough not having housing in the city of Chicago, if you also have a disability, it’s even worse,” Access Living attorney Charles Petrof said. “The laws require program access from our city government and that’s not being provided to people with disabilities when they seek emergency shelter because they’ve lost housing.”

The lawsuit is calling for the city to not only take accountability for their actions but also take matters into their own hands when it comes to the operations of their shelter system and to ensure their partner organizations are properly funded.

Chicago‘s shelter program serves a large population of people with disabilities. In 2018 nearly 20 percent of people living in homeless shelters were handicapped. Tragically, 30 percent of people who were not that lucky and didn’t find shelter were the disabled.

Advocates hope lawsuits in Chicago will have the same effect as they have had in New York City and Washington D.C. In N.Y., the city agreed to provide accommodations to people with disabilities in the shelter program in a 2017 settlement after they were sued by two people with physical disabilities. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice settled a similar lawsuit in Washington D.C. for the city’s failure to provide accommodations to the disabled.

The movement to bring about change got into gear Tuesday morning as activists from the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless rallied outside the city’s community service center. The chants echoed were “What do we want? Equal access! When do we want it? Now!”

After trying to meet with city officials for two years to no avail, advocates hope this lawsuit will bring about the wave of change. “It doesn’t mean that every single shelter the city funds has to be fully accessible,” Petrof told The Chicago Tribue. “But you have to have the same shot at getting a bed if you’re in a wheelchair as if you’re not in a wheelchair.”

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