City officials asked a D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday to remove from the Nov. 6 ballot a voter referendum that would require the District to provide shelter for the city's homeless.
Officials asked Judge Richard S. Salzman to issue an injunction barring the initiative, saying that if approved, it would force the city to spend funds that have not been appropriated and would improperly interfere with the government's budget process.
The referendum, known as Initiative 17, was placed on the ballot by the city's elections board after advocates for the homeless presented petitions signed by an estimated 32,000 city voters. It would make the city legally responsible for providing shelters for homeless people, whose estimated numbers range from 5,000 to 15,000.
Elections board chairman Edward Norton yesterday said that ballots containing the initiative have already been printed, and he criticized the city for seeking court intervention with the election only two weeks away.
"Our position is that the train has already left the station," Norton said. "There was a time to consider this matter and that time has passed."
The dispute centers on the city's contention that the initiative would dictate to the City Council and the mayor how much should be spent on facilities for the homeless, in violation of the D.C. charter, which prohibits voter initiatives that dictate fiscal actions.
Attorneys for the city also maintain that such a referendum would interfere with the elections process by raising "false hopes" among voters about the kinds of policy questions that can be put to a city-wide vote, because it is likely to be ruled invalid by the courts.
The city's appeals court in recent cases has invalidated voter initiatives that would have required specific allocations of city funds. One involved construction of a city convention center and the other demanded restoration of cuts in unemployment benefits.
But Norton as well as advocates of the homeless yesterday disputed the city's argument that Initiative 17 would require the city to spend more than the approximately $3 million it spent this year on shelters.
"There's only two people who would predict how many people are on the streets and how much it would cost to house them, and that is a fool or a politician," said Mitch Snyder, spokesman for the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which operates the largest shelter in the city.
City officials who appeared in court yesterday acknowledged that they are unable to predict how many more homeless people would seek assistance from the city if the initiative were passed, and at what cost.
Sylvia Anderson, a special assistant for legislation and regulatory affairs for the D.C. Human Services department, said privately funded organizations might discontinue some of their services, shifting an increased burden to the city, and that homeless from other jurisdictions might move to the District to receive mandated help.
"We would be open to any person from anywhere in the world, really," Anderson said. "We're likely to receive some of those people if word gets out that we're open and you can get shelter here."
Anderson said the city now operates 753 beds for the homeless, or about a third of all the beds available in the District.
Gregory Tucker, attorney for the initiative's sponsor, the D.C Committee on Overnight Shelter, said the city's lawsuit, if successful, would destroy the initiative concept.
"It would render the initiative nothing but a nonbinding expression of public opinion," he said.