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Shelters sued over ban on aide dogs

Advocates charge facilities with bias for refusing to accept homeless who rely on animals for help.

July 18, 2009|Jessica Garrison

Shawnine Mackay, who often sleeps on the street near Hollywood Boulevard by lowering herself out of her wheelchair onto the ground, said she would love to be able bed down in one of Los Angeles County's dozens of homeless shelters.

But shelter workers have repeatedly turned her away because of her dog, Molly, who is trained to help her detect and cope with seizures.

This week, the Housing Rights Center and the Disability Rights Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and several shelters it funds, alleging that such bans by homeless shelters are against the law.

The Americans With Disabilities Act and fair housing laws do not allow discrimination against people just because they rely on service animals, the suit said.

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

Representatives from the homeless services authority could not be reached for comment.

But some service providers said it is difficult to accommodate service animals in a shelter-like setting where others are sleeping nearby who may be allergic or afraid of dogs.

Kai Stansberry, spokeswoman for the shelter PATH in Hollywood, said her organization operates an animal center for the pets of its clients.

But the housing rights lawyers said that arrangement doesn't work for service animals.

PATH's pet facility is on a separate floor, and that doesn't work for service animals that must be next to their owners.

The lack of services leaves some of society's most vulnerable with nowhere to go, the suit said.

It cited the example of Lydia Zerne, a homeless woman who has a seizure disorder.

Last summer, Zerne's case manager called at least four shelters to try to find a place for her and her dog, then gave up and began "looking for the 'nicest parks,' " according to the suit.

After that, employees at the Housing Rights Center began calling emergency shelters that receive county and city funding.

None would accommodate service animals.

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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