The Benning Park Recreation Center, where homeless families have complained of poor conditions.
The Benning Park Recreation Center, where homeless families have complained of poor conditions.

The District will have no adequate place to shelter homeless families if a judge orders it to stop the controversial use of recreation centers as severe-weather shelters, city lawyers argued in court today.

Appearing before D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert D. Okun for the second consecutive day, the District’s attorneys continued to argue against the assertion by a group of homeless families and their lawyers that the use of the rec centers violates the D.C. law requiring the city to house families in apartment-style shelters or private rooms when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. With arguments running until the court’s closing time, Okun did not issue a ruling, but will return Monday morning to do so.

Today’s hearing was the result of an inconclusive ruling yesterday, in which Okun agreed to turn the case into a class-action suit—-previously, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the use of shelters, but only for the four families listed as plaintiffs—-but found that the homeless families’ attorneys had not provided sufficient evidence that sleeping in rec centers posed a danger of irreparable harm, a necessary ingredient for the preliminary injunction against the use of rec centers that the plaintiffs sought. The plaintiffs returned today with four witnesses, three people who have stayed at rec centers and one expert witness, to testify on the conditions at the rec centers and the harm they cause.

But the debate then pivoted to the options available to the District should Okun ban the use of rec centers—-a discussion on which the ultimate ruling could hinge. District lawyer Kim Katzenbarger argued that with the city’s traditional shelters full, and no more rooms available in the hotels to which the city has turned to as overflow shelters, the city would be unable to comply with an injunction.

“If you order this relief, the District will not be able to comply,” Katzenbarger said. “The District is simply out of space.”

She added, “If the court orders this, the District will probably be found in contempt.”

Katzenbarger said that if the city did locate space, possibly at a school or another public building, it would still have to use the cots and partitions to which the families have objected at the rec centers.

The attorneys for the homeless families countered that it is in the city’s ability to locate space. Allison Holt, of the law firm Hogan Lovells, mentioned the former Hebrew Home for the Aged on Spring Road NW, which has long been vacant and was recently mentioned by Department of Human Services Director David Berns as a possible site for permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless residents. Michele Williams, who oversees DHS’ homeless services, confirmed today that the site is under consideration for other uses, leading Holt to argue that it could just as easily be used as emergency shelter.

“It’s disingenuous to say there are no other public buildings when they’re being considered for other purposes,” Holt argued.

The plaintiffs’ witnesses laid out a litany of complaints about the conditions at the rec centers that might constitute irreparable harm. Dalanda Griffin, who stayed earlier this week at the Benning Park Recreation Center with her husband and three children, testified that her son with severe asthma was unable to use his plug-in nebulizer in the partitioned sleeping space. She said she didn’t take her children to school on Wednesday because they had wet the bed and smelled like urine, and there were no showers available in the rec center for them to clean themselves. She opted to leave Benning Park and spend the next night in the hallway of an apartment building two blocks away “because we got privacy.”

Jenique Fultz, appearing on the witness stand with her week-old daughter, said that when she applied for shelter on Wednesday, she mentioned that she had given birth five days earlier and requested special treatment, but was still placed at Benning Park. There, she says, she stayed up all night “for the safety of my child and myself.”

The expert witness, Danielle Rothman, who holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and works with homeless children at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, testified that the lack of sleep at the rec centers could lead children to have trouble concentrating and fall behind in school. She also said that the fear they experience at the rec centers can cause “learned helplessness,” in which their inability to obtain privacy or safety can lead them to fall into dangerous situations later in childhood and adolescence.

“These harms are irreparable for the children that face them,” Holt argued in conclusion. “There are no money damages that could put those children back in a place of security.”

The plaintiffs had hoped for a ruling today, given that hypothermic conditions are forecast for Sunday night, meaning families will be returning to the rec centers. But Okun was unable to conclude the hearing in time. On Monday, he’ll issue a ruling on the preliminary injunction, either requiring the city to cease housing any homeless families in the current rec-center conditions or allowing the practice to continue as long as the chilly weather persists.

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