No One Should Be Forced to Sleep Outside: Ending Discrimination Against People With Disabilities in Temporary Shelters

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Emma Alzner, J.D. Candidate 2024, Columbia Law School

Nationwide, the number of individuals that lack access to housing is increasing. At the same time, local governments have escalated efforts to criminalize the unsheltered. Given this context, access to temporary shelters has become a critical component of addressing issues surrounding houselessness. However, not all groups have equal access to temporary shelters. Disabled people face significant barriers to accessing shelter systems, frequently forcing them to sleep outdoors. This Note seeks to highlight the discrimination faced by people with disabilities in temporary shelters, explain why our current legal regime has failed to protect against the types of discriminatory behaviors shelters frequently engage in, and explore potential solutions to this problem. Specifically, this Note proposes utilizing the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate to stop discrimination by shelters. Establishing access to temporary shelters is neither a solution to houselessness nor a solution to housing discrimination against disabled people in general. Still, ensuring that all individuals can reside in shelters if they so choose is a critical intermediary step, particularly in light of the increasingly inhumane consequences that individuals may face by remaining unsheltered, including criminalization, health risks, and in some places, forcible commitment.