LOS ANGELES (CN) - Disabled and homeless groups sued Los Angeles County claiming it denies $221 a month in financial assistance to its most vulnerable residents and makes the application process too difficult for those with mental illnesses.
This week, the groups Housing Works, Los Angeles Catholic Worker and Independent Living Center of California filed a federal complaint against the county and the Department of Public Social Services for unlawful discrimination against people with mental disabilities.
The groups accuse the county of implementing a complicated and lengthy process that makes it difficult for its poorest residents to secure general relief subsistence benefits.
Their attorney Claudia Menjivar of the Legal Aid Foundation said on Friday that the problem "goes back decades" but has worsened since the homeless population in LA County increased.
"They encounter a barrier every step of the way," Menjivar said. "Getting to an office can already be very difficult for many people. Not to mention that once they're there they're required to wait long hours in line waiting to meet with a worker, filling out paperwork, being asked questions about their financial status and ability to work."
There are currently 26,000 homeless people in the city. Menjivar said there are between 90,000 and 100,000 participants on general relief. Thirty to 40 percent of the homeless have mental disabilities and need special assistance but the department only identifies 8 percent as needing accommodations, she said.
The attorney said the Legal Aid Foundation had entered into talks with the county this year but that negotiations were unsuccessful.
County spokesman David Sommers said he could not comment on the lawsuit because it is pending.
Timothy Laraway, 57, is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit and says he knows firsthand how difficult it can be to obtain the assistance.
He says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder and completed the application process for GR benefits with assistance from the Legal Aid Foundation of LA.
He was approved for benefits in August 2014, 16 months after he first applied, but says he was not compensated for that period.
"I had to go to DPSS [Department of Public Social Services] three times to get GR," Laraway said in a statement. "I even told the person at the window that I needed help, but they just wouldn't give it to me."
The groups say the county places an unnecessary burden on mentally disabled applicants by making them show up in person to apply.
The $221 a month in assistance is a "last resort" for many applicants who do not qualify for other cash-aid programs, the groups say. But almost half the people who receive the financial assistance are homeless, and a large proportion have mental or developmental disabilities.
"Applicants typically must complete a long application packet and spend long hours, if not several days, in loud, crowded, and chaotic DPSS offices. 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," the Nov. 18 lawsuit states.
On Thursday, about 30 people were waiting patiently in a drab lobby of the Department of Public Social Services building in South Central LA, seated beneath warm florescent lights on bolted-down plastic chairs.
The scene was almost serene, until a department worker opened a door and yelled someone's name. Eventually, a man shuffled over to the worker and disappeared behind the door. All was quiet again.
Outside, 22-year-old Magdaleno Mayorga asked people filing in and out of the building if they were interested in working. Most passed him by without a word.
He is a recruiter for the Associated Technical College and told Courthouse News that he sees plenty of homeless and mentally disabled people come here.
The department on Grand Avenue is busiest during the mornings and at the beginning of each month, Mayorga said, when people from Skid Row line up around the block to apply for benefits.
Mayorga believes the mentally disabled should get Social Security disability benefits in addition to financial assistance from the county.
"Without proper care and resources they are lost," he said, but added that he believes that many of the people who show up to claim benefits are not really homeless.
Mayorga, who said he became homeless when he was 16, now lives in the LA suburb of Lawndale. He said he is also claiming general relief and food stamps but that his benefits will end this month.
He described the application process as straightforward and said he had no problems getting financial assistance.
But the lawsuit says it is harder for the mentally disabled.
The county should simplify the process by allowing online applications that mirror those in place for food stamps and family welfare in California, and mental screening to ease the process for people with mental disabilities, the groups say.
Those with mental illnesses also face an uphill task to keep benefits once their application is accepted. Applicants are required to take part in three weeks of job training before they are approved for financial assistance and must complete 80 hours each month in a job-readiness program, according to the groups.
"For many individuals with mental disabilities, these requirements are unreasonable and unrealistic," the lawsuit states.
The groups want a declaration that the county's policies, procedures, and practices are unlawful and an injunction barring the county from discriminating against the mentally ill. Laraway is also seeking general, special, compensatory and consequential damages.
In addition to the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Disability Rights Legal Center, and the law firm Morrison & Foerster are representing the plaintiffs.