Disabled citizens make up a large portion of the homeless public in the United States and because of this, action is necessary to protect the civil rights of these individuals to receive fair and adequate housing, when necessary.

In order to make this a reality, however, there are several barriers that must be overcome. In this selection, we will explore how far we’ve come in housing the homeless, as well as what still needs to be achieved to rightfully accommodate those without homes living with disabilities in America.


In the past, homelessness was viewed as a local issue. It wasn’t until 1983 that a federal task force was formed, however, this task force did nothing to change homelessness through program or policy.

Under the Regan administration in the early 1980’s, homelessness was to be deferred to the local communities. However, as time went on, advocacy groups began to form and significant changes were seen in regards to legislation and laws enacted to service homeless communities.

Finally, in 1986, the Urgent Relief for Homeless Act was introduced and passed Congress in 1987. This act provided transitional housing, healthcare, food and other reliefs to the homeless population. Later, it was renamed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, after its chief sponsor, Representative Stewart B. McKinney, had passed on. In 2000, this act was again renamed by President Bill Clinton after another staunch supporter of the act, Representative Bruce Vento. It was then deemed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and is still referred to as such, today.

Another major advance in the response to homelessness came in 2009, with the enactment of the HEARTH Act, otherwise known as the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act. This act created the COC, or Continuum of Care program, which uses federal funds to provide proper shelter and housing to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Coordinated Entry

Coordinated entry is a standardized way in which the community can effectively address the needs of the homeless population in a way that prioritizes those most in need. This is done most often by way of assessment, referrals, matching and affirmative marketing.

Once assessed, these individuals and families will be provided with housing, healthcare and public benefits that match their needs. Those most likely to be considered for urgent housing include those with disabilities and those who have been homeless and living in unlivable habitations, on a chronic basis.

Prioritizing is necessary due to the low number of housing available to the homeless community. Those considered for the process are often referred by others, or have called, or traveled to coordinated entry advocacy groups to receive information for mainstream services.

Long-term housing may also be available to those who are out of housing for long periods of time. Many times, however, homeless community members may be sent to shelters until housing becomes available. This is especially true according to the demand of the community.

There are no specific tools required to analyze who may or may not be prioritized per community. Some tools may be different from community to community. Assessment scores will be determined differently depending on the community.

The following factors are likely to play a major role in who will be prioritized within the homeless community:

  • Vulnerability to victimhood including sex trafficking, prostitution or physical abuse
  • At-risk for death or serious illness
  • Youth or child who are at risk or unsheltered
  • Physical, mental and behavioral disabilities
  • Major health challenges
  • Ongoing homelessness
  • Other factors

There may be times when, because of their circumstance or situation, a homeless individual may need accommodations to assist with the aforementioned assessment and matching process.

Sometimes, coordinated entry staff members may have reason to believe that a family or individual needs assistance. When that is the case, coordinated entry staff members may initiate communication with appropriate entities rather than have the homeless individual in question do it on their own. Moreover, staff may help individuals gather documents, fill out forms and may even extend deadlines whenever necessary to further assist a person with a disability who needs permanent housing.

Disability Civil Rights

There are multiple acts in place to protect those with disabilities through public entities and their contractors that utilize federal assistance. They revolve around several principles that ensure the rights of disabled homeless citizens. According to HUD Notice CPD-17-01, the following are required of Continuum of Care systems: to include accessible access points to disabled citizens, to adhere to policies and procedures that ensure effective communication with homeless individuals and families, to provide a process for appealing coordinated entry decisions and to verbally communicate the ability of the homeless citizen to file a nondiscriminatory complaint if need be.

Coordinated entry systems are responsible for knowing what types of permanent housing are available for those with disabilities. Moreover, they must be utilizing those permanent housing accommodations as much as possible by placing those with disabilities within those units whenever possible.

Individuals who are not disabled should not be placed in units with disabled functionalities unless there is no one else who has a disability that can utilize them. In this way, those with disabilities are given priority for housing that can accommodate their sundry needs.

Common Barriers

When advocating for the homeless community, it is important to note the many barriers that the homeless community is up against.

Unfortunately, many homeless residents have experienced criminalization of circumstances they could not help, such as having to sleep on the street or live out of their cars.

The Martin vs. City of Boise Act, also known as Bell vs. Boise, abolished the criminalization of those sleeping on the streets because they do not have access to shelter. Nevertheless, there are times when loopholes are sought to make it seem as though a homeless individual has “access” to a shelter bed, when, in fact they don’t.

An example of a homeless person with a disability who is a recovering addict or who may have a disorder linked to anxiety who is being ordered to stay in a shelter where they may be exposed to triggers. In this case, the shelter is not actually “available” to them, as putting themselves in a situation that may trigger them will prove to be unsafe for the individual.

Sometimes, depending on the community, there may literally be no shelter beds available. In this case, it is a violation of the rights of the community citizen to be penalized for having to sleep outdoors, when there are, in fact, no beds available indoors.

Sadly, even shelters have regulations that can infringe upon the civil rights of homeless individuals with disabilities. Oftentimes, shelters encourage their inhabitants to take a proactive role in seeking to transition from the shelter to housing. Unfortunately, many persons with disabilities may be unable to keep up with regulations set forth by these shelters for varying reasons, and may end up being penalized for circumstances they cannot help. In this case, the person with the disability is left unheard and unfairly treated without any regard for their situation.

Because of this, the hope is that shelters will begin to make inquiries for accommodations to help individuals with disabilities before evictions transpire.

The following are disability considerations that can help affected members of the homeless community who wish to stay in shelters:

  1. Flexible chore requirements
  2. Alternatives to established meal process
  3. Extended arrival and exit times
  4. Assistance with housing progress requirements
  5. Appropriate accommodation inquiries before eviction

Effective Advocacy

It is for the reasons noted above that advocacy for homeless individuals, especially those with disabilities, is needed. The following are a few ways in which advocacy for the homeless can be achieved:

  • Advocacy on a system level
  • Advocacy on a personal level
  • Advocacy for individual members of the homeless community through support and organizing individual homeless citizens

By joining forces with the local homeless community and challenging existing legislative thoughts and actions, policies in place can be overturned and success can be achieved in creating a viable and attainable way to secure adequate housing for homeless and disabled individuals and families.