Advocates sue Los Angeles welfare program

people waiting in a lineA coalition of civil rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County on November 18, alleging that it violates federal and state disability discrimination laws in its operation of its state-mandated General Relief program.

“From the very beginning when someone walks through the door, it’s a labyrinth for (people with disabilities) to apply,” Claudia Menjivar, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. “Our hope is to fix a broken system that doesn’t appropriately accommodate those with developmental and mental disabilities.”

General Relief is a county-run program that provides $221 per month in financial assistance to certain people ineligible for other federal and state programs. Recipients must have $50 or less in cash or a bank account, and an income of less than $221 per month.

Unlike with benefits under the state’s food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, people seeking General Relief must apply in-person at one of 14 locations in the county. Potential beneficiaries must wait in long lines and complete complex forms that deter people people with disabilities, most of whom receive no accommodations, from applying, the lawsuit contends.

“(The Department of Public and Social Services) has implemented a complex, time-consuming process for applying for GR benefits,” the lawsuit states. “Applicants typically must complete a long application process and spend long hours, if not several days, in loud, crowded, and chaotic DPSS officers.

“For persons with serious mental disabilities such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression, the application process is a daunting and insurmountable barrier to securing GR benefits.”

Since the 1980s, the County has had a program designating certain applicants as “Needs Special Assistance.” The plaintiffs claim this is “inadequate,” faulting the County for failing to implement a screening process before applicants are assigned a case worker, when the NSA designation is made, and for under counting the number of individuals in need of assistance.

As noted in the complaint, the County estimates that 39.5 percent of the city’s homeless population, which make up most of the General Relief program’s applicants, have disabilities. However, just 16 percent of General Relief beneficiaries are designated NSA status.

Upon receiving benefits, beneficiaries are forced to undergo a range of job-training programs, which the advocates argue are “unreasonable and unrealistic.” In addition, about 70 percent of beneficiaries classified as “Needs Special Assistance,” are done so on only a temporary basis.

“All of these steps, both individually and collectively, discriminate against persons with mental disabilities such as social anxiety and cognitive disorders and improperly obstruct their access to GR benefit,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleges violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the California statute authorizing the General Relief program.

The Independent Living Center of Southern California, Los Angeles Catholic Worker and Housing Works are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with one individual, Tim Laraway. They are being represented by the Disability Rights Legal Center, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Morrison & Foerster LLP.