A D.C. Superior Court judge on Thursday ruled that all homeless families that have been staying in a makeshift shelter on frigid winter nights can join in a lawsuit alleging that the city’s emergency housing is inadequate.
Judge Robert D. Okun, siding with four families that filed the initial complaint, expanded the suit into a class action to include all families residing in the Benning Park Recreation Center, at 5100 Southern Ave. SE, as well as any others that might be sent there during a hypothermia alert.
Okun did not immediately rule on whether the District will be required to find apartment-style housing for the 79 families that have been staying in the recreation center. That decision could come after a hearing set for Friday, when attorneys for the homeless are expected to present additional evidence and witnesses.
After Thursday’s hearing, Dora Taylor, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said that “whatever the outcome” of the case, the city will “continue to work in the best interest of homeless families.”
A group of families, with pro-bono attorneys from the firm Hogan Lovells, filed suit Feb. 28 alleging the District was failing to provide an adequate place to stay during frigid weather. City law grants any resident the “right to shelter” on nights when the temperature drops below freezing and the city declares a hypothermia alert.
A record number of families have sought shelter in the District this winter. Once the city’s family shelter was full, officials placed hundreds of people in motel rooms in the District and Maryland.
In January, city officials said they had to take the unprecedented step of putting families in common rooms of city recreation centers.
Since Jan. 30, the District has placed 761 homeless families in apartment-style and other private rooms in various locations in the city, according to figures provided at Thursday’s hearing. But the 79 families at issue have been housed in the recreation center.
In their suit, the four families, which have children, complain of poor and unsafe sleeping conditions and a lack of privacy at the recreation center.
“Communal shelters or nonprivate rooms in recreation centers are harmful and provide risks to families,” Jennifer Brechbill, one of the attorneys for the homeless families, said during Thursday’s hearing.
At the Benning Park center, the city has created temporary sleeping quarters for emergency shelter during severe winter weather. Six-foot-high partitions have been installed to provide privacy, and the city contends that the arrangements meet the requirements of the D.C. law.
But the families’ lawsuit says the partitions are flimsy, exposing unrelated people to one another, and that the rooms are noisy. Earlier this month, another Superior Court judge, siding with the homeless families, ordered the city to provide them with temporary housing at hotels or other places with private rooms.
Kim Katzenbarger, an attorney for the city, said in court that the District has spent $4.5 million this winter on emergency shelter for homeless families. The city had budgeted $3.2 million for that purpose.
“This is a very serious issue that the District is trying to deal with,” Katzenbarger told the judge.
At one point, Okun tried to get to the heart of the issue by asking for the definition of a “private room.” Allison Holt, an attorney for the families, referred to a Webster’s dictionary definition of a room as a space with walls, a ceiling, floors and a door.
Katzenbarger said that the statute does not specifically define a private room but that a room is a space with walls or partitions.
In his ruling, Okun sided with the plaintiffs. “The court rejects the District’s interpretation of a private room,” the judge said. But he still has to decide whether conditions at the recreation center are damaging to families, particularly children.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the committee that oversees city homeless programs, said the judge’s decision Thursday was enough to convince him that the city should stop sheltering homeless families in recreation centers.
“I think the mayor should proceed to shut them down immediately,” Graham said. “Rather than struggle with this legal case, let’s move on and find more suitable housing.”