On December 18, homeless families in the District of Columbia were handed a victory in their struggle to find safe shelter during periods of sub-freezing temperatures. The DC Court of Appeals ruled that the communal placement of homeless families in recreation centers during freezing weather was illegal and unsafe.
Under DC law, homeless families are entitled to shelter when the temperature drops below freezing. To protect families’ health and safety, the shelter must be apartment-style housing or private rooms.
Despite this explicit legal requirement, in the winter of 2013-2014, the District Government began housing homeless families in cots in recreation centers, with inadequate safety precautions and no privacy or access to bathing facilities. In response, a team of pro bono lawyers from the firm Hogan Lovells, with assistance from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, filed a class action lawsuit against the District, arguing that the conditions in the recreation centers were unsafe and unsanitary.
After an initial hearing in DC Superior Court, Judge Robert Okun ruled in favor of the families, issuing a preliminary injunction. The District appealed that injunction to the DC Court of Appeals, and oral arguments took place in September 2014. The District did not dispute that it had a statutory obligation to place homeless families in apartment-style or private room shelter, arguing instead that the plaintiff families had no standing to sue the District to enforce the law. The Court of Appeals did not agree.
Its December ruling concluded that “the plaintiff families were empowered to sue in severe weather for the full measure of the statutory protections afforded them – protections which are an integral part of the Council’s continuing effort to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of homeless families in the District.”