Yesterday, in a major win for homeless families in the District of Columbia, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that homeless plaintiffs can sue to force the government to provide apartment-style or private-room shelter on any night when the temperature drops below freezing. Legal Aid joined a number of other legal services organizations and housing advocates to submit an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the case.
Last winter, the government underestimated the number of individuals and families who would need severe weather shelter. After running out of available shelter and hotel space, the government began placing people in huge recreation centers that endangered both safety and health. Families were separated by relatively thin Red Cross partitions that the trial court found did little to protect privacy, block constant noise and smells, or even allow for light control (lights were kept on all night for security reasons). The trial court also heard “powerful and compelling” testimony about shelter residents sharing communal restrooms, which were unsanitary and too few, and the lack of access to any showers or baths.
Several homeless families sued the District this past February to force the government to place homeless families in private rooms. The D.C. Superior Court recognized that the government had tried to provide shelter and likely acted in good faith, but that this did not excuse the harm to the homeless – particularly, the “psychological harm . . . [to] one of the most vulnerable segments of our population, the children of homeless families.”
A preliminary injunction was granted, and the city appealed. The government argued that families had no right to sue to enforce the law’s guarantee of private shelter space, and that the law only requires “four walls and a roof, nothing more,” meaning, among other things, that it would not even require heating on freezing nights. The Court of Appeals rejected the District’s argument, stating that it “makes no sense,” and refused to read the law this way. The Court held that the government must provide apartments or private shelter for the homeless whenever the predicted or actual temperature, including wind chill, falls below 32 degrees, and it is “common-sense” that people can sue “to promote compliance with that obligation.” As a result, the preliminary injunction against placing families in congregate shelter should remain in place while the plaintiffs press the remainder of their case.