Housing Complex

Battle Over Rec-Center Shelter Heads to Court Tomorrow

Donnell Harris, Stephanie Williams, and their children were one of the plaintiff families moved from rec centers in an earlier court case.

Donnell Harris, Stephanie Williams, and their children were one of the plaintiff families moved from rec centers in an earlier court case.

The D.C. government and lawyers for homeless families will appear before the D.C. Superior Court tomorrow to argue over whether the city is allowed to continue sheltering homeless families at recreation centers or must move them to private rooms.

This question has become a point of great contention as the number of homeless families seeking shelter has skyrocketed this winter. The city, which is required by law to shelter homeless families when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing, responded to its full traditional shelters and waning supply of available motel rooms by housing families in rec centers—first out in the open, and then separated by partitions. The families have complained of poor sleeping conditions there, and took their case to court, aided by lawyers from the firm Hogan Lovells. Two judges have sided with the homeless families and ordered the city to move the families to private rooms, as required by the law. (The city contests the courts' definition of "private room," and provided its own definition that includes partitioned spaces.)

But those two rulings only applied to the specific plaintiff families—one family in the first case, four in the second—and so other families continue to sleep at the rec centers. The latter case, before the D.C. Superior Court, resulted in a temporary restraining order against the use of rec centers for those particular families. Tomorrow, that case will go before Superior Court Judge Robert D. Okun, who will rule on whether to issue a preliminary injunction against the same, which would remain in place until the full case is heard later this year or next year.

The attorneys for the families are seeking to expand the ruling to a class action, which would apply to all current and future homeless families. They filed two motions with the court last week: one to expand the temporary restraining order to cover all families in the rec centers, and one to seek a preliminary injunction that would pertain to all current and future homeless families.

In the motions, the attorneys argue that the issues with the rec centers apply to all families sheltered there equally, not just the ones specifically listed in the case. And while tomorrow officially marks the beginning of spring, they say that continuing cold conditions make it necessary to address the situation for all of these families promptly.

"While Spring may be only weeks away," the motion for preliminary class certification states, "freezing conditions persist, and the need for relief for all Class members is urgent."

The city, which has defended the use of rec centers as both legal and successful in deterring homeless families with other options from seeking shelter, contests the arguments from Hogan Lovells. In one of its two motions, it contends that the relief sought by the homeless families and their lawyers would "require the District to maintain an inexhaustible supply of apartment and private style rooms to accommodate any and all District families that apply for emergency shelter in hypothermic conditions." (The city does, and would continue to, have the ability to screen families to determine whether they are truly in need of shelter.)

"Plaintiffs present no persuasive factual or legal support for the radical expansion of the extraordinary relief they obtained," states the city's second motion. "Plaintiffs—quite literally—present no evidence of any injury at all, and no controlling or persuasive case law. They present nothing more than their 'beliefs.'"

Those "beliefs," however, already have the backing of two judges, at least when it comes to the named plaintiffs. Robert S. Tignor, the judge who granted the temporary restraining order, wrote in his ruling that it is "likely, but not certain, that Plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this case" going forward. That argument was in reference to the specific families in question, rather than the full class of homeless families in rec centers. Okun's ruling will determine whether it will apply more broadly.

The hearing was initially scheduled for Friday. However, the court moved to replace that hearing with one tomorrow on the motions from Hogan Lovells and the city.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Diana

    Is hearing open to the public? Where is the Court calendar to find court room, time?

  • Corky

    This is what happens when you write feel good laws that are divorced from reality. It is not the government's job to guarantee shelter. When you put such language in a statute, you attract allegedly homeless people from all over the east coast who would rather stay in a DC funded motel than a shelter in Baltimore. Who could blame them? Now, I hope the City Council takes this into account before voting on Cheh's feel good bill to guarantee meals to school children, even when school is out. Lawsuits in the making!!

  • shawguy

    If they cannot provide even basic shelter for their family, those two children should be taken away from them and put up for adoption to a family that can love AND care for them properly. If I ended up in a shelter with my kids, the LAST thing I'd EVER do is complain or bring attention to myself, much less sue anybody.

    First off, I'd be grateful I got anything - in many places, I'd be left outside to freeze. Secondly, I'd be grateful nobody had noticed yet that I still had one thing I shouldn't have anymore - my children - and try to fly under the radar so nobody noticed I was still the custodial parent even though I obviously could not care for the children in my charge.

    If I've ever seen "unfit" parents in my life, it's these two. Why make a federal case out of the fact that you have children that should be taken away from you? Unless they'd rather have the money from a settlement than their kids. Which is, sadly, probably the case here.

    And why doesn't Council just repeal the stupid law? They passed it, they can repeal it. This wasn't inflicted upon us by Congress or a court. Repeal the law, and the case disappears.

  • K

    To access shelter you have to prove you are a District resident, particularly that you are not receiving benefits in any other state.

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