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County Program for Poorest of Poor Discriminates Against Mentally and Developmentally Disabled

LOS ANGELES (Nov. 18, 2015) — Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services fails to accommodate the most vulnerable — mentally or developmentally disabled homeless people applying for subsistence benefits under General Relief. Not only are those who need help the most not receiving it, the bureaucratic system and complicated application process also violate federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.

General Relief is the county’s program for the poorest of the poor. Individuals must apply in person — a requirement that places a heavy burden on applicants. The chaotic and often crowded environments within DPSS offices create extreme suffering for people with schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and severe depression, preventing them from even applying. And even when people with mental and developmental disabilities obtain benefits, they are faced with a number of onerous requirements that they are unable to meet to maintain them.

Today, Tim Laraway, Los Angeles Catholic Worker, Independent Living Center of Southern California and Housing Works filed suit in federal court to stop these discriminatory practices. These clients are represented by Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Disability Rights Legal Center and Morrison & Foerster LLP.

“I had to go to DPSS three times to get GR,” said client Tim Laraway. “I even told the person at the window that I needed help, but they just wouldn’t give it to me.”

An estimated 30% to 40% of the homeless have mental disabilities and need help, but DPSS only identifies 8% of General Relief applicants as needing any kind of special assistance. This means that only one out of every four or five applicants receives the accommodations he or she needs to complete an application, even when an applicant shows obvious signs of mental disability, such as talking to one’s self or screaming incoherently.

For those with mental and developmental disabilities, the long application process can present a daunting and insurmountable barrier to securing General Relief benefits. Mental health workers and other advocates accompanying clients have witnessed their clients suffer anxiety attacks and other symptoms while waiting for service.

And finally, even those who manage to obtain General Relief benefits are often wrongly terminated because their mental disabilities were not initially recognized and they were not given the special assistance they needed to comply with or be exempt from General Relief rules.

The lawsuit demands DPSS take the following actions: 1) Make reasonable accommodations for those with mental and developmental disabilities, 2) Stop the termination of benefits to those who were not correctly identified as needing special assistance and are unable to comply with program rules and 3) Declare the current system that denies meaningful access for the disabled is unlawful.

Los Angeles County is required to provide for its homeless and destitute residents through General Relief. It must remove the barriers it has put in place so that the most vulnerable can receive the help they need.

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