Where’s Noah Webster when you need him? The latest showdown between the D.C. Council and the administration of Mayor Vince Gray centers on a simple definition: the meaning of the term “private room.”
Last winter, the matter headed to the courts, to decide whether the city’s use of partitioned spaced in recreation centers conformed to the D.C. law requiring shelter in private rooms for homeless families when temperatures dropped below freezing. Representatives of the administration pointed to the third definition of “room” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “a partitioned part of the inside of a building.” Lawyers for the homeless families seeking more private shelter preferred the first definition, “a part of the inside of a building that is divided from other areas by walls and a door and that has its own floor and ceiling.” The judge in the case ultimately sided with the families and ordered the city, through a preliminary injunction, to stop using the rec centers as shelter.
In March, the administration sought to codify its interpretation, issuing a notice of emergency rulemaking from the Department of Human Services that defined “private room” as “a part of the inside of a building that is separated by walls or partitions for use by an individual or family.” By that definition, the rec centers would meet the terms of the law.
Today, the Council struck back. In the second and final vote on the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act of 2014, the Council voted unanimously to define “private room” as one that has four walls, a locking door, sound insulation, its own lighting that can be turned off, and access to hot showers. The bill now heads to Gray for his signature or veto.
Gray has already signaled his disagreement with the bill, with a letter to the Council today opposing it in no uncertain terms. “The bill will mandate significant additional investments in the shelter at the expense of investments in affordable housing and other more permanent housing solutions,” he wrote. “It will throw the District back to an era when streets were filled with hotels filled with homeless families.”
The bill, Gray wrote, will cost the city money—-if the city’s even able to comply. Gray warned that noncompliance might be the result, leading to lawsuits and fines.
Criticism aside, Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy says Gray is “still considering” whether to sign or veto the bill.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery