Housing Complex

Judge Orders D.C. to Stop Sheltering Homeless Families at Rec Centers

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 city must cease sheltering homeless families at recreation centers and move them to apartment-style shelter or private rooms, a judge ruled today.

Facing overflowing shelters this frigid winter, the District—obligated by law to provide shelter to homeless families when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing—has turned to the rec centers for shelter on cold nights. But families there have alleged that the partitioned spaces in the rec centers don't allow for privacy or constitute the private rooms the city is required to provide for homeless families in the absence of available apartment-style shelter.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert D. Okun sided with the families today, issuing a preliminary injunction against the use of the rec centers until the full case is heard and decided, likely later this year.

Appearing before Okun on Friday, city attorneys argued that they would be unable to find adequate shelter for the families if Okun issued a preliminary injunction. But Okun stated today that the city's expense and challenge in housing the families was "far outweighed by the danger of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs" if an injunction were not issued.

Following the ruling, city attorney Kim Katzenbarger said it would be "impossible for the District to comply" with the ruling for lack of available space in city-owned buildings or hotels, raising the possibility that the District would be held in contempt of court for not moving the families tonight, when subfreezing temperatures are again expected. Okun denied Katzenbarger's request for a stay pending the appeal the city plans to file.

Several homeless families were present for the ruling, and rejoiced after it was issued. "Thank God!" exclaimed Stephanie Williams, a homeless mother of two. "Amen."

Williams, her husband, and her children were one of four families already moved from the rec centers to hotel rooms as a result of a temporary restraining order issued earlier this month by another judge. But that order applied only to the families listed as plaintiffs. Today's ruling, following a request by the families' lawyers, applies to the full class of current and future homeless families.

Williams expressed joy on the behalf of the families she got to know at the rec centers, who will no longer have to stay in the subpar conditions they've complained of there. "They don't have to go back to the rec anymore," she said. "Don't have to suffer."

  • GWM

    DC has always been a soft shoulder of tolerance when it comes to dealing with its un-characterically “liberal” safety net and homeless policy.

    I mean, the city is one of what, 2 places nationwide that has actually written it into law that the City must provide shelter when the temperature is low.

    That law has now apparently been spun into, “must provide private hotel rooms, daily cleaning service and cable tv not only to the homeless, but anyone who doesn’t like their current living situation and can’t bother to ask a family member or a friend for a place to stay”, and now we have the homeless suing the city to provide such accommodation.

    I believe the homeless are going to push the city’s goodwill past the breaking point, and have become their own worst enemy in this regard. Class action suits against the nations most homeless friendly place will only force the city to become less friendly with their policies.

    Since 2009, the city has increased its homeless services budget 64%, from 73 million to 120 million, this despite the cities homeless population falling, and unemployment falling. 100 of that 120 million is on temporary (seasonal) shelter services.

    In total, the city has 6,800 homeless. In that number are 771 families. In basic terms, the District taxpayer spends just under 18,000 per year, PER homeless person (man, woman, child). Since 100 million of that 120 million is for seasonal temp shelter / services, we end up spending 14,000 per homeless person, spread across 4 months of the year, or $3,500 per month, per person.

    That sob story that was in the post, about the husband/wide and two kids who didn’t like their shelter accommodations…we spend a total of $6,000 a month on their services, and they still have the gall to sue us? Jesus…

  • TSW2

    Kudos for a terrific article on homelessness in the district. This was a serious piece of substantive journalism that demonstrated investigative reporting and shed light on a pervasive problem in the nation's capital. I went into the article thinking there would be an explanation to what seems to be an increase in homelessness only to discover that the numbers haven't changed as much as some of the city's housing policies have given the plight greater exposure.

    While I appreciate CityPaper's coverage of local topics and stories, it tends to dwell heavily on the latest restaurant opening or chef's dish, and political coverage sometimes resembles schoolyard gossip; this story covered an issue that has far-reaching repercussions the the resolution of which (if any) will require tough decisions and leadership from city officials - thanks for giving it the exposure it deserves.

  • Corky

    The city should find out where this judge lives and move these homeless people into a group home right next door. Granted, the law is ill conceived and the judge is bound to follow the law, but he is also required to use judgement in interpreting the law. Finding irreparable harm to kids because they are sleeping in a rec center when they would otherwise be sleeping on the sidewalk or on a steamgrate is just ridiculous. Any harm these kids are suffering from bieng homeless is not the fault of the DC government.

  • Northwesterner

    Back in the late 1970s when unemployment, bad dc schools, vietnam vets coming back addicted, and lack of opportunity was a problem I felt differently about homeless families than I do now.

    Recently a grandmother on our block kicked out her 25 yr old grandson who, while he has a retail job of sorts, doesn't have a job that pays enough to pay his rent. It's time for him to wake up on a friend's couch and decide that he needs to get that engineering degree that will allow him to live in our super expensive city.

    There are people who are homeless now, who moved here or who went through periods of hedonism in their lives where they were drinking, doing drugs, calling in sick to work with a hangover or simply not working enough hours to keep themselves in an apartment. That hedonism period comes back to haunt these homeless residents.

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