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D.C. Judge Orders Apartment-Style Shelters for Homeless During Winter Freeze

Updated on July 24, 2015

Homeless Families Want Privacy in Shelters

A D.C. Superior Court judge in July 2015 ordered the District of Columbia to arrange apartment-style shelters or hotel rooms for homeless families when temperatures drop below freezing.

Judge Robert Okun issued the mandatory injunction on behalf of families that filed a lawsuit last year to stop the city’s policy of making them sleep on cots in recreational centers.

D.C. law guarantees homeless families shelter when temperatures drop below 32-degrees. The families that sued said the recreational centers were inadequate as shelters because they offered no privacy, had crowded bathrooms and did not protect children from drug addicts and other dangerous persons.

City officials tried to get the lawsuit dismissed by arguing all the complaints in the lawsuit were resolved by a 2015 law. The law guarantees homeless families privacy and safety, according to attorneys for the District.

Okun rejected the city’s motion for dismissal. He said the new law was not a significant improvement over the previous policy of providing shelter to the District’s more than 7,000 homeless persons.

The lawsuit originally was filed by four families but Okun expanded it into a class action. The families were housed at the Benning Park Recreation Center at 5100 Southern Avenue SE during hypothermia alerts.

They were represented by pro bono attorneys from the firm of Hogan Lovells.

Normally, the city puts homeless families in motel rooms but used recreation center common areas last winter as the homeless population grew to a record level. The city exceeded its budget of $3.2 million for homeless shelter last winter by spending more than $4.5 million.

Six-foot partitions that D.C. officials said met requirements of the law separated one family’s cots from others. The lawsuit said the partitions were flimsy and did not keep out noise from other families nearby.

Part of the lawsuit focused on a definition of a private room that would meet standards for safety.
The Hogan Lovells attorneys cited Webster’s dictionary in defining a private room as a space with walls, a ceiling, floors and a door.

D.C. attorney Kim Katzenbarger said the law did not define a private room but it should be considered a space with walls or partitions.

Judge Tries to Take Bite Out of Cold for Homeless Families

Homeless families have a privacy right in winter shelters, judge says.
Homeless families have a privacy right in winter shelters, judge says.

What are the rights of homeless families?

Should homeless families have a right to apartment-style shelters during winter freezes?

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    • Tom Ramstack profile image

      Tom Ramstack 2 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      That's my thought too. The argument against the ruling is that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for someone else's financial misfortunes. As you said, if we aren't better than that then we should be.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, Tom. I also had never heard about this ruling but I am happy to hear about it. I believe it is government's responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves especially when circumstances are out of their hands. Leaving people out on the streets when it is below freezing is simply inhumane. We are better than that.

    • Tom Ramstack profile image

      Tom Ramstack 2 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      I hear you loud and clear. I do volunteer work at a homeless shelter sometimes. Recently, I heard a homeless man playing a piano in the dining room like a virtuoso. It almost hurt to think a man of such talent should be thrown away onto the streets.

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 2 years ago from Washington, DC

      Thanks for the info, Tom, hadn't heard about this ruling. When I think about families with multiple children and no resources, I think it's a good idea. More and more families with small children come to the breakfast program I run at my church, just to make ends meet. It's difficult for the average person with a decent salary to find housing in DC. There aren't many affordable housing programs in the city and it's difficult for those who are down and out for circumstances beyond their control. I imagine this ruling is for temporary shelter during harsh winter months which makes sense to me. My only concern is the expense but with a court order, they'll find the money. Good report, voted up and useful.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from USA

      Excellent point about the high cost of housing in the Washington, D.C. area. With that being the issue, it would also be the reason many people are homeless through no fault of their own. Anyway, for them, I am glad the government is offering help.

    • Tom Ramstack profile image

      Tom Ramstack 2 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      I agree that shelter is an individual responsibility in most cases, but not when the cost of housing is astronomical and the job prospects are few, which is exactly the case in the Washington, D.C. area. It's a great place for people with PhD's in computer science or partners in law firms. Many other people -- some of whom are nice people -- are just out of luck. I suppose the easy answer is move away to some other city. Sometimes that's easier said than done. In other words, the court's decision this week was right.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from USA

      Oh my, I don't even know how to respond without someone throwing tomatoes at me. I've been homeless in my days and never expected anyone, especially the government, to provide shelter for me. My shelter is my responsibility. I know some people are homeless through no fault of their own. Still, others are homeless by choice. I wonder why they feel they are entitled to be accommodated? In any event, it is nice that the government stepped in to shelter the homeless. It's nice to be treated well.