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Lawsuit alleges discrimination against homeless people with service dogs

July 20, 2009 |  4:24 pm

Shawnine

The Southern California Housing Rights Center and the Disability Rights Legal Centerhave filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority over what they say are discriminatory practices toward homeless people who rely on service dogs. 

The lawsuit, filed last week, alleges that emergency homeless shelters in L.A. routinely turn away homeless people such as Shawnine "Viper" Mackay (above, with her dog, Molly).  Mackay relies on her service dog to deal with seizures; she and Lydia Zerne, another homeless woman with medical issues and a service dog, are co-plaintiffs with the Housing Rights Center in the suit.

According to the lawsuit, about 20% of L.A.'s homeless residents have a physical disability. More still have emotional or substance abuse issues, and while only two individuals are plaintiffs in the case, the suit alleges that many more use service animals either for physical assistance or emotional support.  Discriminating against those who depend on service animals, it continues, violates both the Americans With Disabilities Act and fair housing laws. 

"They are all supposed to take service animals," Shawna L. Parks, director of litigation for the Disability Rights Legal Center, told our colleague Jessica Garrison. "We are not talking about pets."  

Some providers of services to the homeless say that animals -- even well-behaved service dogs -- are difficult to accommodate in the shelter environment, where they must be in close quarters with other people who may be frightened of or allergic to dogs. One Hollywood shelter, PATH, maintains a facility for its residents' pets. But the pets are on a different floor from people,so even this approach doesn't work for someone in Mackay's or Zerne's position.  [More: Read Garrison's full story on the lawsuit.]

According to the Housing Rights Center, shelters that refuse to accept service dogs put needy homeless people in a Catch-22 situation.  "These shelters put people with disabilities in the impossible position of having to choose between the service animals that provide them with needed disability-related assistance and the ability to access emergency shelter services," said Michelle Uzeta, the group's director of litigation. 

Mackay summed the issue up even more succinctly: "I'm not safe without her but I'm not safe on the streets either."  

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Shawnine Mackay with her dog, Molly, who is trained to help her detect and cope with seizures. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

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