Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.
Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

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When a judge ordered the city yesterday to stop sheltering homeless families in recreation centers, District lawyers said they likely would not be able to comply with that order due to the lack of available private rooms in which to place the families. Now it appears their threat was just that.

According to the D.C. attorney general’s office, the city placed all 11 families in need of shelter in hotel rooms, at a cost of $159 to $224 per room.

The District is required by law to provide shelter in apartment-style shelters or private rooms for all homeless families in need when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. Faced with more homeless families than units at traditional shelters, the city turned first to hotels and then to rec centers. But several families placed at rec centers sued; their lawyers alleged that the partitioned spaces at the centers didn’t constitute the private rooms required by the law. Yesterday, a D.C. Superior Court judge agreed with them and issued a preliminary injunction against the use of rec centers for any current or future homeless families until the full case is heard, likely later this year.

City lawyers said there was simply nowhere to put the families. City officials testified that the Department of Human Services made daily calls to D.C. hotels in search of available rooms, but that there weren’t any additional rooms offered by the hotels. District attorney Kim Katzenbarger said it would be “impossible for the District to comply” with the ruling, and that it might be held in contempt of the judge’s order. 

But the city doesn’t seem to have had much trouble finding available hotel rooms for the families. Between the judge’s ruling in the late morning and the families’ placement in the evening, it located at least 11 available hotel rooms for the families. (According to Katzenbarger, the city has placed about 79 families in rec centers so far this winter, at a rate of around a dozen per night. Families at the rec centers must reapply for shelter each day, and some who are uncomfortable at the rec centers may choose to improvise shelter elsewhere. Five families have already been moved from rec centers as a result of two previous court rulings.)

Allison Holt, an attorney with Hogan Lovells who represented the four homeless families listed as plaintiffs in the case, confirms that none of the families she’s spoken with were returned to rec centers. A DHS spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

The unusually cold March weather has placed an extra burden on the city’s shelter system, after a winter that already saw a surge in the number of homeless families seeking shelter. Tonight, the forecast again calls for subfreezing conditions. According to Ted Gest, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, DHS is working to identify space for any additional families that might apply for shelter today.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery