Justice Dept.: Pa. shelter denied blind man bed

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PITTSBURGH – A Western Pennsylvania homeless shelter wrongly refused a bed to a blind man because officials there didn’t want to accommodate his service dog, the U.S. Justice Department claims in a lawsuit alleging housing and disability discrimination.


The federal lawsuit contends the blind man, Kenneth DeFiore, 54, became so despondent that he laid down in a busy intersection and tried to commit suicide, but was instead rescued by police and taken to a hospital for a psychiatric exam.


DeFiore contends he contacted City Rescue Mission of New Castle on Dec. 5, 2011, about a month after he was evicted from his apartment. He has been blind since 2006 due to glaucoma and other health problems.


After being told the shelter didn’t have facilities to accommodate his guide dog, DeFiore contacted a caseworker with a Lawrence County social service agency to plead his case. Officials at the shelter, located about 45 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, told the caseworker that DeFiore could stay there provided he arranged for his guide dog to stay elsewhere.


As a result of the shelter’s refusal to take in the dog, DeFiore remained homeless until he found other housing a few weeks later, but not before attempting suicide, the lawsuit said.


Neither shelter officials nor lawyers for the facility immediately returned messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.


DeFiore sued the shelter on his own in November and filed an amended complaint this year that the shelter’s attorneys were attempting to answer before the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division took up the man’s cause, federal court records show.


In responses to DeFiore’s previous lawsuit, shelter attorneys have argued the shelter didn’t violate the law because the federal Fair Housing Act pertains only to renting or leasing properties.


According to court documents already on file, City Rescue is merely an “emergency, short-term shelter” that provides housing from one to 90 days along with “food, casework and religious counseling to homeless men.”


The shelter’s attorneys also say that it’s a religious organization so neither the Fair Housing Act nor the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to it.


“Since its founding in 1911, City Rescue has always operated as a not-for-profit Christian ministry, providing free shelter and services to homeless residents of the New Castle area,” the attorneys wrote.


The Fair Housing Act, the lawyers say, “does not apply to religious organizations that seek to limit entry into their shelters so long as those religious restrictions are not on account of an individual’s race, color or national origin.”


The Justice Department contends that logs show the shelter had a spare bed during the time that DeFiore was homeless and that shelter officials should have made a reasonable accommodation for his dog.


DeFiore now lives in a run-down trailer in a rural area, according to his lawyers. They did not immediately comment about the lawsuit.


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