A deaf Bushwick woman who struggled to navigate the city’s homeless shelter system with no interpreter recently won a settlement that will ensure other heard-of-hearing refuge residents won’t face the same barriers she did in finding permanent housing.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services last Tuesday agreed to pay Grace Ihetu and her family $117,500 for their suffering and ensure all deaf people living in shelters get access to sign-language interpreters from now on, and Ihetu said she is thrilled at the outcome.
“I am happy and proud I made a positive change,” said Ihetu, who swung the settlement thanks to lawyers at the New York Center for Law and Justice, a legal team that represents the deaf and hard of hearing.
Ihetu, who was born deaf, said she became homeless in September 2010 and entered a Bronx shelter alone, hoping workers there could help her find below-market-rate housing where she could live with her twin daughters and son. Her kids went to live with a relative, she said.
But she soon realized she had no way to communicate her goal to shelter workers — she is not fluent in English and the city did not provide an American Sign Language interpreter. When she tried to request one, the workers shrugged her off, she claims.
“I would go to every single person in the staff,” said Ihetu. “They looked open to helping, then would realize I was deaf and they would close down again.”
Ihetu says the city shuttled her from shelter to shelter without explanation, and she grew increasingly frustrated trying to find help.
She finally stopped by a social service agency in February 2011 and explained her troubles. The agents there referred her to the Center for Law and Justice, where lawyers reached out to the city on her behalf. The city heard her pleas, and Ihetu moved into a Bushwick building with her kids that September.
There are laws in place that are supposed to ensure resources for deaf individuals in the homeless system, said one of the lawyers who worked on Ihetu’s case, but city agencies were not following through and did not realize many deaf residents were suffering in silence.
“We made the city aware of the challenges of being deaf in the homeless shelter system,” said attorney Bruce Gitlin. “To the city’s credit, they began an investigation and tried to make things right for Grace.”
But even after settling into her home, Ihetu felt she needed to do more to ensure others didn’t face the same obstacles she did, and her legal team agreed.
“We felt that there was a need for a policy change,” said Gitlin.
The team, working with the United States Attorney’s Office, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeless Services and eventually scored a victory for deaf and hard-of-hearing shelter residents — the city must now supply an interpreter upon request, inform deaf residents that they can make such a request, and train shelter employees on how to work with deaf residents.
The department declined to comment on Ihetu’s account of her experiences, but claimed it had already been working to improve services for deaf residents, which the settlement will now solidify.
“DHS has implemented a number of additional measures over the years for deaf and hard of hearing shelter residents and this agreement formalizes that commitment,” said spokeswoman Nicole Cueto
Ihetu says it was a painful journey, but it ultimately had a happy ending.
“I feel blessed,” she said. “It was so horrendous what I was going through before, but now things are great.”