New Castle News

May 15, 2013

Guide dog dispute sparks complaint against mission

By Mitchel Olszak and Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The City Rescue Mission has been charged with violating the federal Fair Housing Act over a guide dog.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed the complaint against the mission Monday, arguing a member of its staff had violated federal rules by refusing to let a blind homeless man stay at its shelter with his guide dog.

According to HUD, the charge followed an investigation into an incident that occurred in December 2011, where the man requested shelter and was told the mission had no accommodation for his service dog. Instead, alternative shelters were suggested.

The man, whom HUD did not identify in information released to the media, then went to Lawrence County Community Action Partnership for assistance. A representative of that organization contacted the mission on the man’s behalf, HUD said. The complaint says mission representatives reiterated the guide dog could not be admitted, but the man would be allowed to stay there without the dog.

The Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations in their rules, policies, practices or services when needed to provide persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling, HUD noted.

“For many people with disabilities, guide dogs and other assistance animals are necessities, not options,” said John Trasviña, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. “HUD will enforce Fair Housing Act protections to ensure that housing providers grant reasonable accommodation requests.”

Asked Monday to comment on HUD’s complaint, Kevin Green, executive director of the City Rescue Mission, responded to the New Castle News via email. He wrote:

“Contrary to what many believe, we are not a government-funded homeless shelter.”

The City Rescue Mission, he continued, “is a Christian ministry, organized as a church, offering compassionate care to the hungry and homeless as a gift of charity.”

He noted that “care and provision” is offered “without any expectation of consideration or any return.

“We do have limitations for whom and how we serve people due to the age and limitations of our facilities. We only have limited space where we can make a reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities, where they can be supervised and safe.

“We do this out of love, as we are not a social service agency. We believe that due to the religious freedom set for us in the Constitution, we are not subject to the provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

“We proceed praying that our outreach ministry will not be impaired by this litigation.”

Green noted that last year, the mission served 641 men, 161 of them veterans, “many with physical and mental impairments. We can only do this through the loving contributions of our faithful donors.”

HUD’s charge will be heard by a United States administrative law judge unless any party in the matter wants to have the case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge finds that discrimination has occurred, he may award damages. The judge also may order injunctive relief and other equitable relief, as well as payment of attorney fees.

If the matter is decided in federal court, the judge also may award punitive damages.

Although HUD did not identify the man who made the complaint, a civil lawsuit filed against the City Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh appears to describe an identical incident. The plaintiff in the case is Kenneth DeFiore of Edinburg.

That lawsuit — still unresolved — was filed in November, alleging identical incidents and dates as in the complaint filed by HUD Monday.

In responding to DeFiore’s allegations, the rescue mission argues state and federal housing rules do not grant “unfettered access to all housing.” In addition, it notes that applicable laws involving housing and discrimination allow for religious exemptions for entities such as the mission.

This is particularly true, the response notes, because the mission accepts no federal funds for its homeless shelter.

The response goes on to declare the mission rejects no one on the basis of race, color, national origin or disability. However, it requires the people it serves to abide by the mission’s rules and says it serves a specific segment of the population: “Christians and those who are genuinely open to the Christian ministry.”

As for the guide dog, the mission’s response argues that accommodating it would be difficult in a cramped facility where other homeless people are lodged. The possibility other individuals at the shelter could be allergic to dogs was cited in the paperwork.