A federal lawsuit filed by civil rights attorneys Wednesday accuses Los Angeles County of illegally denying mentally ill homeless people access to general relief, the county's $221-a-month welfare program for the destitute.
Lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Disability Rights Legal Center and other groups contend that thousands of mentally ill homeless people are denied general relief because of a complicated application process or are dropped from the program because of bureaucratic barriers.
The 27-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, said the requirement by the county's Department of Public Social Services that people must sign up in person at county welfare offices — and have no options for online applications — places a heavy burden on applicants.
People with mental disabilities often become discouraged from applying for general relief because they cannot handle long wait times in noisy, chaotic county welfare offices, the suit says. Those with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses can be intimidated by security guards inadequately trained in how to interact with mentally disabled people, and many cannot read or understand complicated application packets, the suit says.
"From the very beginning when someone walks through the door, it's a labyrinth for them to apply," said Claudia Menjivar, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation. "Our hope is to fix a broken system that doesn't appropriately accommodate those with developmental and mental disabilities."
Menjivar said attorneys negotiated unsuccessfully with the county for several months before filing the suit.
County spokesman David Sommers declined to comment on the suit, saying officials had not yet had a chance to review the complaint.
According to the lawsuit, those who manage to get general relief benefits often are wrongly terminated from the program because their mental disabilities were not initially recognized and they were not given needed special assistance to comply with or be exempt from the program's rules.
Although 30% to 40% of the county's homeless people are seriously mentally ill or developmentally disabled, only 8% of general relief applicants receive special assistance from the county to navigate the requirements, attorneys said.
Plaintiffs in the case are Los Angeles Catholic Worker, Independent Living Center of Southern California, Housing Works and Timothy Laraway, a 57-year-old county resident with multiple mental illnesses who said he was not given needed assistance to get general relief.
Others providing legal representation are Morrison & Foerster and Western Center on Law and Poverty.