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New claim adds to lawsuit alleging San Diego did not protect disabled homeless in coronavirus crisis

The San Diego Convention Center's homeless shelter.
A TV game show is displayed last month at the Alpha Project homeless shelter at the San Diego Convention.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing San Diego city officials of failing to adequately protect disabled and homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic have amended their lawsuit, which argues they are being discriminated against by the city, an attorney said Tuesday.

The lawsuit accuses the city of pushing homeless people into the Convention Center shelter instead of hotel rooms, because using COVID-19 relief funds for the Convention Center shelter helps it offset hundreds of millions in expected losses from canceled conventions and events.

Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, says this discriminates against homeless people with disabilities and wastes public resources.

The lawsuit was filed June 8 in San Diego Superior Court by Disability Rights California on behalf of five chronically homeless people and the San Diego chapter of Food Not Bombs — a global volunteer group that shares free vegan meals as a protest against war and poverty.

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Except for Food not Bombs, all the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are chronically homeless people who have disabilities and have underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

County officials have arranged for about 2,000 hotel and motel rooms for people who have COVID-19 symptoms or who tested positive for the disease and have no other place to isolate. Of those rooms, the county Regional Task Force on the Homeless oversees about 200 for people without homes.

Most of the hotel rooms have gone unused.

Without a court order, the lawsuit says, the city is unlikely to change its approach.

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“We feel that time is of the essence in terms of us being able to explain some of the disparities that exist, and in the amended complaint, we more clearly delineated the harm to the protected class,” Ijadi-Maghsoodi said Tuesday.

The 99-page amended complaint was filed last week in San Diego Superior Court.

Among the amendments was an additional cause of action, alleging the city violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a California law that prohibits discrimination by businesses. It entitles people to “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever,” the lawsuit says.

The suit further argues that the city participated in a public-private partnership to provide hotel and motel rooms to people at high risk of complications from COVID-19 and that the provision of housing accommodations is a “business establishment” under the act, so the city is not allowed to deny access to plaintiffs because of their disabilities or race.

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The city had not filed an answer to the complaint as of Tuesday morning, according to the court website. In a statement, the city said it is accommodating homeless people.

“The city has taken aggressive and unprecedented steps to protect individuals experiencing homelessness during the global pandemic, including utilizing the Convention Center to provide a safe and sanitary place for over 1,200 individuals to stay through Operation Shelter to Home,” the statement said. “The city also started moving families experiencing homelessness into a revamped motel this week that had originally been intended for another use.”

The parties in the lawsuit are scheduled for a status conference on Aug. 5, according to case records.

Ijadi-Maghsoodi said Tuesday that all homeless plaintiffs in the complaint should qualify for county-funded hotel rooms provided to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, but they were denied access or reasonable accommodations. She has said they were instead offered shelter at the San Diego Convention Center, which they all turned down because of health concerns, she said.

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“By expending taxpayer funds on a congregate setting, instead of non-congregate settings, the city knew that it was effectively excluding homeless individuals with disabilities, who rely on the city’s homeless programs, from accessing shelter and services during the COVID-19 pandemic and/or placing them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19,” the amended complaint alleges.

Food Not Bombs was harmed by the discrimination, the lawsuit said, because it had to expend extra time and resources to reach homeless populations that had scattered to remote canyons and alleys trying to avoid being arrested or who were moved by police to the Convention Center.

As of July 8, the city reported 1,220 people were in the Convention Center shelter. More than 4,000 coronavirus tests had been administered to clients and staff, with seven clients testing positive.

The county reported earlier this month that no homeless people were among the approximately 400 COVID-19-related deaths this year.

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Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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