The District government, in a settlement of a lawsuit alleging the city had denied shelter to homeless families, has agreed for the first time to develop right-to-shelter guidelines aimed at preventing "unduly restrictive" shelter admission practices, according to an attorney for the city.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Roberta L. Gross said the settlement reflects a commitment to develop before winter new regulations pertaining to Initiative 17, the city law that guarantees homeless residents the right to overnight shelter. The public would have an opportunity to comment on the new rules before they are implemented.
Gross also said that other provisions of the 21-point negotiated settlement are intended to clarify policies that may have been subject to "unduly restrictive interpretations" by some city employes.
Under the settlement, city workers will not be allowed to discourage families from applying for overnight shelter by saying there is limited space available. In addition, the city will not be permitted to require that a family provide proof of financial need, marriage or an eviction as conditions for initially receiving overnight shelter. Under the suit's settlement, any family denied shelter must receive a form stating the reason.
The settlement was filed in U.S. District Court yesterday and must be signed by Judge John Garrett Penn before the lawsuit is dismissed.
In July, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Father McKenna Center and two homeless women alleged that the city had violated the overnight shelter law by turning away some families seeking emergency shelter. As a result, the lawsuit charged, some families were forced to sleep in parks and in cars.
Under the proposed settlement, signed by Gross and Department of Human Services Director M. Jerome Woods Gross, the city would comply with a set of standards and procedures governing placement of families, methods for determining homelessness and guidelines for keeping homeless families together.
"The settlement is a major step forward for homeless families," said Maria Foscarinis, Washington counsel to the homeless coaltion. "The lawsuit has finally forced the District to recognize that homelessness among families has reached crisis proportions."
Since January, the city has had a comprehensive plan to deal with a dramatic increase in the city's homeless family population. The settlement states that the agreement reached is not intended to create any additional rights for the homeless but to "memorialize the current, stated policies and practices."
In a 12-month period ending last year, the District experienced a dramatic leap of more than 500 percent in the number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter at the government's expense.
In July, when the lawsuit was filed, District officials said they had trouble housing families because an average of 30 families a day were seeking shelter while most of the city's hotels -- some of which are used to house homeless families on an emergency basis -- were filled with tourists. During that time, the city placed about only five families a week and had to convert the Banneker Senior High School gymnasium to house 38 families who said they had no other housing resources.
Since July, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services said, the daily requests for shelter have decreased to five a day while the number of homeless families housed increased from 413 to 500, including 306 families in hotels and the rest in longer-term units.