The city has already placed around 60 homeless families at the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE this winter for lack of other shelter space.

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The D.C. Court of Appeals today affirmed homeless families’ right to shelter in private rooms during freezing conditions, rejecting an effort by the city to overturn a similar court decision in March.

Last winter, amid an unforeseen spike in the number of homeless families seeking shelter, the city began placing some of those families in recreation centers, where they slept on cots in partitioned spaces, after the traditional shelters and supplemental motel rooms filled up. D.C. law requires the city to shelter homeless residents when temperatures drop below freezing, and stipulates that the shelter for families must be in private rooms. A group of homeless families placed in the rec centers sued, and a D.C. Superior Court judge sided with them in March, issuing a temporary restraining order and later a preliminary injunction that compelled the city to move them to more appropriate shelter.

The city appealed, and today the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected that appeal. The Vince Gray administration had challenged the right of the families to file the suit, and had questioned the reasoning of the D.C. Superior Court. “We disagree that the meaning of the entitlement-to-sue provision plainly precluded the homeless families’ suit,” writes associate judge Catharine Easterly in today’s ruling. “Moreover, from our review of the statute as a whole and its legislative history, we conclude 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.”

The ruling isn’t the final say in the case, which was argued in September. A trial court will still need to hear the case before the preliminary injunction can become permanent. The appeals court found, though, that “the plaintiff families have demonstrated the requisite likelihood of success on the merits.”

The decision comes as the city faces yet another shelter crunch this winter. The District has already sheltered around 60 families in motels for lack of space in proper shelters this winter, and anticipates a 16 percent increase in the number of homeless families requiring shelter over last winter.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery