Are shelters legally obligated to maintain a certain standard of cleanliness?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Shelters, along with any other facilities that house groups of people, are subject to public health regulations regarding sanitation, rodent control, and safety just as they are subject to fire safety codes and zoning ordinances. But because so many different types of places offer various levels of sheltering and state and county health regulations vary, there is not an established standard guaranteeing that sheets are washed every day or that floors are always swept or that other measures of cleanliness are assured in every shelter.

A shelter resident who becomes sick or injured because of conditions in the shelter might be able to sue the shelter for negligence, depending on the situation. It could be the premises liability type of negligence if the sickness or injury was predictable.  An example of predictable sickness might be when a shelter with heavy dust and mold causes an asthmatic resident to have a serious asthma attack.

If the sickness or injury has nothing to do with the condition of the building, but it happens in the shelter, failing to help a resident in need might count as negligence. Ordinarily, people in the U.S. have no duty to rescue somebody.[i] But innkeepers, businesses, and other places open to the public do have to help people who become sick or ill while there.[ii] Since the law imposes that duty, breaching it to the extent that harm comes to a resident would be negligence.

There are other reasons that the homeless might sue for healthier shelter conditions.

Consider some examples from New York City:  In the mid 1990’s there was a line of New York City cases about homeless people who were temporarily housed in the Emergency Assistance offices where they went to apply for space in shelters.[iii] While it would seem that at least sleeping in an office would be better than sleeping outside, the Court of Appeals of New York declared that “The consequences of the City’s practices include families sleeping on the chairs and on the floor, washing in the sinks of public restrooms, and suffering self-evidently unsanitary and unsafe traumas.”[iv]

There was also a group of homeless people with HIV-related illness who sued the city seeking access to shelters better-suited to their health needs.[v] The city had a Comprehensive Care Program that equipped some shelters to particularly care for homeless AIDS patients. These plaintiffs with HIV-related illness had some health accommodations in the shelters, but were not entitled to shelter conditions comparable to those available to AIDS patients.  A lower court had found that housing twelve to a room constituted a tuberculosis risk for people with HIV-related illness.[vi] The appeal concluded that plans for health and hygiene in shelters were within the authority of health and housing agencies not the courts.

Shelters tend not to have special accommodations for every specific health need. Diabetics cannot expect that a shelter will have meals that are suitable for their diets and ready supplies of insulin. Asthmatics cannot expect that a shelter will take extreme measures to reduce its dust and mold to assure that they can breathe.

The Centers for Disease Control maintains a list of state and local health departments.[vii] Reading a local health department’s rules and program descriptions is the most direct way to learn what public health services are available to the homeless. There may be drop-in clinics, day programs, special facilities for certain health and hygiene functions, etc… and these may be outside of shelters or on-site at shelters.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides a free online manual titled “Shelter Health: Essentials of Care for People Living in Shelter.”[viii] This manual is not a legal document and does not legally obligate shelters to do anything. It is intended as a source of information for providers of group housing. It tells shelters how to keep the facility as hygienic as possible and provides clues about how to recognize health problems so that shelter staff can make helpful referrals for clients to get appropriate medical care. The manual is full of details like sample policies about laundry, hand washing, lice control, and cleaning body fluids from floors, furniture, and bathrooms. Homeless people or their advocates seeking to improve the local legal standards for shelters could use the manual to get examples of the improvements that should be made.


[i] Restatement (Third) of Torts § 37 (Proposed Final Draft No. 1 2005). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 90 (2006). To find cases making this point, look in West Digests (indexes to cases) using the topic “negligence” and the key numbers 214 and 282.

[ii] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A (1965 & Supp. 2006). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence §§ 90-91 (2006). The case of Baker v. Fenneman & Brown Properties, L.L.C., 793 N.E.2d 1203 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) shows that business owners and innkeepers and others who have special relationships with sick and injured visitors to their establishments do have a duty to get those victims medical care.

[iii] McCain v. Dinkins, 639 N.E.2d 1132 (N.Y. 1994). This case culminated the series of cases about temporarily housing people in the Emergency Assistance Unit offices. It summarizes the cases leading up to it.

[iv] Id. at 1136.

[v] Mixon v. Grinker, 669 N.E.2d 819 (N.Y. 1996).

[vi] Id. at 820.

[vii] List of state and local health departments http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/international/relres.html. If this Web address changes, go to http://www.cdc.gov/ and use its search box to find the most recent list.

[viii] The shelter health manual is at http://www.nhchc.org/resources/clinical/tools-and-support/shelter-health/.

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