Homeless families testify about makeshift shelters

Dalanda Griffin, her husband and her three young children had been living with a cousin, but they had to move out because their stay violated the cousin’s rental agreement. They found themselves with nowhere to go.

So on Monday, when the temperature dropped to about 25 degrees overnight, they sought help from the District. Under the city’s hypothermia policy for homeless families, they were placed in a Southeast Washington recreation center that was turned into a makeshift shelter.

The night was challenging, Griffin told a D.C. Superior Court judge at a hearing Friday. Her children, ages 2, 4 and 5, were awake the entire night, she said. They were afraid, she said, of the strangers sleeping in cots near them, separated by six-foot-high partitions. “I didn’t sleep. My children didn’t sleep. We didn’t feel safe,” Griffin, 22, testified.

Griffin’s family is among the homeless families that have challenged the sleeping arrangements at the Benning Park Recreation Center, at 5100 Southern Ave. SE. Pro bono attorneys from the law firm Hogan Lovells have argued on their behalf that the arrangements were dangerous to children because there are no private rooms, just the partitions.

Four families filed suit Feb. 28 alleging that the District was failing to provide adequate emergency shelter on frigid nights. City law grants any resident the “right to shelter” on nights when the temperature drops below freezing and the city declares a hypothermia alert.

On Monday, after two days of hearings, Judge Robert D. Okun is expected to decide whether to bar the District from using recreation centers as shelters — as opposed to sending homeless families to motel rooms or apartments paid for by the city.

A record number of families sought shelter in the District this past winter. Once the city’s family shelter was full, officials placed people in motel rooms in the District. The city has placed 761 families in D.C. area motel rooms and apartments during this hypothermia season.

In January, city officials said they had to take the unprecedented step of putting families in common rooms of city recreation centers. On Thursday, Okun ruled that 79 families that have stayed at the Benning Road center can join the lawsuit, which became a class action.

At issue is whether children in homeless families are at risk of long-term psychological and emotional injury as a result of staying in recreation centers that do not provide private rooms.

During Friday’s hearing, Griffin testified that one of her children was so afraid at the recreation center that she urinated on herself during the night. Griffin also said that people were smoking marijuana outside and that the smoke could be smelled inside. The next night, instead of returning to the center, Griffin and her family slept in the hallway of an apartment building, she said.

The District has spent about $4.5 million this winter on emergency shelter for homeless families, much more than the $3.2 million budgeted for that purpose, according to officials. Kim Katzenbarger, an attorney for the District, said that if the judge forced the city to place homeless families in motel rooms and apartments, funds would have to be taken from other parts of the budget.

The availability of motel rooms and apartments is also an issue, Katzenbarger said. She said that eight motels in the District had agreed to house families during winter emergencies but that those motels have less space available with the start of the spring tourist season. Katzenbarger said seven more days of freezing nights are forecast in the coming weeks.


(The Washington Post)
Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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