Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.
Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.

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A judge today rejected the city’s argument that the partitioned spaces in recreation centers where it’s been sheltering homeless families meet the requirement that District house these families in private rooms during extreme weather. But the judge stopped short of ordering the city to stop using rec centers as shelter, instead asking the attorneys for the homeless families to provide greater evidence that sleeping in these shelters threatened to cause “irreparable harm” to the families.

The hearing, in the D.C. Superior Court, followed one in the same court earlier this month, in which Judge Robert S. Tignor issued a temporary restraining order against the use of rec centers as shelters for the four families listed as plaintiffs. In advance of today’s hearing, the attorneys for those families requested that the case be considered a class-action suit, which would apply to all current and future homeless families seeking shelter in extreme weather. D.C. law requires the city to place homeless families in apartment-style shelter or, if it’s not available, in private rooms whenever the temperature with windchill drops below freezing.

The judge in today’s hearing, Robert D. Okun, rejected the city’s claim that private rooms were not required, as well as its claim that the use of partitions on a basketball court at the Benning Park Recreation Center created private rooms. The city recently published an emergency rule defining a 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,” but Okun said the city’s definition was undeserving of the usual deference because it appeared to have been adopted as a way to bolster the city’s case in the ongoing litigation. “It can hardly be ignored that the rule was issued one day—-one day—-before the [temporary restraining order] hearing before Judge Tignor,” he said.

Okun also agreed with the families’ attorneys that the case met the conditions for a class-action suit, meaning that a preliminary injunction would prevent the city from sheltering any families at rec centers, not just the listed plaintiffs, until the full case is heard later this year or next year.

However, in considering whether to issue a preliminary injunction, Okun found that the lawyers for the homeless families had not provided enough evidence that sleeping in rec centers created a danger of “irreparable harm” to the families—-a necessary condition for a preliminary injunction to be issued. One family that claimed harm was Melvern Reid and her 10-year-old grandson, who, Reid said, was afraid to sleep or to change in the rec centers. However, because the family’s stay at the rec centers came before the city obtained new partitions that created more privacy—-Reid and her grandson were moved as a result of Tignor’s order—-Okun was unconvinced that the current conditions posed the threat of irreparable harm.

Okun asked the plaintiffs’ attorneys if they wanted the chance to gather such evidence and reappear in court. The lawyers, from the firm Hogan Lovells, huddled before responding. “We’ve got hypothermia nights coming up Sunday and Monday,” whispered one, referring to the sub-freezing forecasts for those nights. “So we should do it tomorrow,” said another.

Hogan Lovells’ Allison Holt asked Okun for a hearing tomorrow, unless he’d agree to temporarily relocate all families from the rec centers pending a hearing next week. The city’s lawyers agreed to a hearing tomorrow.

That left the Hogan Lovells attorneys scrambling to find homeless families that have stayed in the rec centers since the new partitions were installed. As they left the courthouse, they took to their phones to contact a few families they knew, and planned to stake out the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, where homeless families apply for shelter.

Tomorrow’s hearing will take place at 2 p.m., at which point a ruling is likely.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery