Serving the Disabled Homeless
Robert P. Bennett



Olga Figeroa lives in a cramped two bedroom apartment at 920 East 6th Street, an apartment building run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), with her two children. The family has lived in this apartment for the past twelve years. For five of those years theyíve been trying to get into a new apartment, one with three bedrooms and accessibility for someone who uses a wheelchair. Figeroaís fifteen year old daughter, Natasha Cruz, has Cerebral Palsy. The doorways in the apartment are very narrow, too narrow for Natashaís wheelchair to fit through. The rooms are too small to comfortably accommodate three people and all the special equipment Natasha needs.

"Itís kind of cramped. My daughter sleeps in a room with her 13 year old brother. She needs special equiment, like a standing board so she can stretch her legs a bit, and a corner chair, so she can get out of her wheelchair. I canít have that equipment because thereís no room. She canít move around the apartment. Thereís no room for me to push her through with the wheelchair. The doors arenít wide enough and the bathroom isnít set up for someone in a wheelchair. I have to carry her, but when I carry her she bumps her head. Sheís got bruises on her head from my trying to get her from room to room."

"They [the building managers for that complex] were supposed to bring in some contracters to widen the doors in this apartment. I started to ask them to do it about three years ago. Now theyíre telling me itís going to take two years for that. Where my daughter goes to school they told me they could send someone to widen the doors, but the city says thatís against the law. "

There are no retrofitted apartments in the 6th Street complex but when NYCHA offered to move Ms. Figeroa and her children to a retrofitted apartment on 113th Steet and Lexington in Harlem she turned down the offer. "I donít want to live out there. I donít want to go from bad to worse. I need to stay in this area because my familyís near by. God forbid something should happen, I have people near me here. Right now thereís an empty 3 bedroom apartment on the 8th floor. I called CIDNY, which is going to call the apartment manager to try to get me into that apartment. Itís not retrofitted but at least itís got three bedroom. My housing assistant told me Iím on a waiting list and that I have to wait for the computer to spit my name out."

Anabal Aquino, an eighteen year old man who has Spina Bifida, has been sitting in a hospital for two years because there is no other place for him to go. Born into both poverty and disability, he lived with his mother and two cousins in an inaccessible, delapidated, roach-infested apartment. There were holes in the ceiling and floor. The simple exercise of going to the bathroom was impossible to accomplish alone since the doorway was too narrow. Before his hospitalization he hadn't been able to leave that apartment unless his father and cousin carried him and his power-driven wheelchair down the building's four steps. The family had been offered another apartment, one that was accessible, but it was in a neighborhood that familymembers described as 'scary.'

The experiences of Olga Figeroa and Anabal Aquino are not uncommon. People all over the city are having difficulty moving around inside their apartment. In many instances whole rooms go unused because they can not be accessed. Simple excursions to a building's laundry facilities become, for the most part, unattainable goals.

In point of fact, New York City is not the only one facing the challenge of what to do with its disabled homeless population. All major cities face this same problem. However, the problem facing this city is important because of all the housing authorities NYCHA is considered to be the best. If the best of the housing authorities can't handle this problem what hope is there that other city's housing authorities can? It is for this reason that NYCHA is watched so closely and why they come under attack so often. It is for this reason that the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has devoted much of its resources towards helping New York City find homes for the growing numbers of physically disabled homeless.

"The truth," says one NYCHA representative, "is that there is not enough need to fill 5% of our current total stock with accessible apartments." According to this undisclosed source within the housing authority many of the apartments that have been modified have yet to be occupied. He states that as of February 5, 1997 3,920 apartments have been set aside for modification. Of these 2,768 have already been modified, but only 1,825 are currently occupied. "Weíve got these apartments that by law have to be set aside for the disabled, but theyíre not being rented despite advertising and getting the word out about availability."

These statements can be somewhat misleading to an uninformed ear. They sound as if the disabled homeless population is not a large one. However, the size of that population is not an easy determination to make. Neither the size of the disabled community nor the size of the homeless population are readily accepted numbers. When the two populations are combined to determine how many disabled individuals are homeless the results are nothing less than confusing. There are plenty of numbers to go around.

The most recent U.S. census indicates that approximately seven percent of all households with more than two members include at least one person with a mobility impairment. According to HUDís General Counsel, Nelson A. Diaz, approximately 215,000 households that are eligible for public housing in New York City have at least one member over fifteen years old with a mobility impairment. Adam Glantz, one of HUDís Public Affairs officers, has said there are approximately 16,000 mobility impaired people living in NYCHA apartments. If any of these numbers is to be taken as accurate then the number of accessible apartments within the housing authority does not meet the current need for those apartments.

The question is, which of these numbers is the most accurate assessment of the size of New York City's disabled homeless population?

Determining the size and complexity of a program to handle the needs of the disabled homeless means deciding which number is most accurate. However, to do this a series of questions must first be answered. How do you come to a generally accepted definition of disability? How do you determine the standards by which someone is classified as homeless? What are the standards for creating accessible living conditions? Should housing units be set aside for retrofitting when no one knows if those units will ever be used by a disabled individual? It should be noted here that under HUD mandate five percent of a housing authority's total stock of apartments have to be retrofitted to suit the needs of residents with disabilities. A serious question being asked by housing authority officials is whether this percentage is too high or too low to meet current needs. That question hasn't been properly answered, in fact can't be properly answered without an understanding of how large a need there is. Unfortunately, the city is ill equipped to know what the size of the need for accessible living space is. Surveys to answer that question have gone through a series of false starts. Right now NYCHA is conducting just such a survey, but that survey has been going on for years and there is no end in sight.

When talking about housing for disabled individuals two issues have to be addressed, accessibility and availability. These issues are complicated. People want to live in a house or apartment in which they can manage on their own but they also want to be where they are close to family, employment and support services. Achieving the two goals isn't always an easy thing to do. NYCHA doesn't always take into consideration the need of current residents or applicants to be near family, friends and work. Their first objective is to get people into shelter, any shelter they have available. This raises a problem for many people. What happens when, as in the cases of the Figeroa and Aquino families, an accessible apartment is made available but it doesn't meet the needs of the individual or family? What if a family needs a multiple-bedroom unit and none are available? In the past the city warehoused apartments as they became available but those apartments didn't always fit the current needs of people looking for places to live. Perhaps this is why many NYCHA apartments go unoccupied.

Finding a true definition of accessibility is another problem, but at least that has been addressed. For an apartment to be considered to be accessible under federal law three conditions have to be met. First the apartment itself has to be accessible and without barriers such as narrow doors or cabinets that are too high. Second, the apartment has to be on an accessible route from outside the building to the unit itself. This means that things like entrances and elevators have to be looked at for potential barriers. In many cases the front of an apartment building will have steps which a wheelchair user can't navigate or the building's elevator will be too small to accommodate a wheelchair. Lastly tenant services that are available to everyone, such as laundry and mailbox facilities, have to be readily usable by the tenant with a disability. After a recent evaluation, HUD officials said that while 1480 of NYCHA's 81,125 units met two of these criteria none met all three critera for accessibility. Even if all the 1480 apartments were fully accessible this would be far fewer than the five percent necessary to fulfill the law's requirments.

The problems facing the disabled homeless in New York go back a long time. In fact, one can say the problems began with the signing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974. Section 504 of the Act called for all public housing programs to become readily accessible to people with disabilities. Twenty years later many disabled individuals are still without proper housing. Many of New York's buildings are old, built at a time when staircases were architecturally in vogue. The problem is that stairs and disabilities don't often go together very well. It is both difficult and expensive to modify an existing building to make it more accessible. Changing the law doesn't seem to be the answer. There have been a wide array of laws, both local and federal, instituted to make buildings accesible. To say they haven't been successful is an understatement. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed it was hailed as a landmark for disability rights. Title II states that all places of public accomodation, including public housing, must make structural modifications that insure accessibility. These modifications must, under the law, have been completed by January 1995. Needless to say, the modifications haven't been completed yet. Three years ago, in an effort to push New York City into fulfilling its obligation to make housing accessible to people with disabilities, a voluntary compliance agreement was signed by NYCHA and HUD. The agreement outlined exactly how the construction of accessible housing would take place and the timeframe allowed for compliance. In the three years since the agreement was signed little progress has been made in creating accessible living space for people with disabilities. Since signing the compliance agreement the housing authority has sought a waiver from upholding its part of the voluntary compliance agreement in the timeframe decided upon by both parties. The housing authority has a history of seeking extentions. In May 1992, for example, NYCHA asked HUD for a two year extention of a July 1992 deadline to meet Section 504 regulations. Then, in 1994 NYCHA, requested another extention. In June 1995, however, that request was denied by HUD.

In June of 1994 a suit (Rivera vs. The New York City Housing Authority) was filed on behalf of all physically disabled residents of the housing authority and all potential applicants who are disabled. The suit, brought by several agencies, including the Legal Aid Society, Eastern Paralyzed Veterans and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, was certified a class action on November 16, 1995. It asked for a partial summary judgement against the New York City Housing Authority based on their violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In their brief the plaintiffs ask that NYCHA be ordered to: provide, within 9 months, reasonable accomodation to all tenant classmembers already identified as needing accomodation; complete, within 60 days, the on-going survey of mobility impaired tenants to determine their needs; within one year provide reasonable accomodation to those identified in the survey as in need of accomodation; provide a plan detailing how each of these steps shall be carried out.

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