In 1984, voters in Washington, DC (The District) passed the Right to Overnight Shelter Act (ROSA) which guaranteed to all homeless people in the District the right to adequate overnight shelter. Later the City Council passed a law that created an emergency shelter program for eligible families; this program was approved by and partially funded by the federal government via the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The city council later amended these laws to explicitly state that an entitlement to shelter did not exist, citing rising costs as the basis for the amendments. The District's denial of an entitlement to shelter, the allegedly insufficient level of funding it made available to its shelter system, and the allegedly arbitrary means it used to determine placement in shelters lead to the cases summarized below.
On August 19, 1992, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (the Legal Clinic) filed a lawsuit on behalf of homeless individuals living in Washington, D.C. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the District's Mayor in her official capacity. No documents from this first case are available as electronic documents, but it quickly resulted in a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) wherein the District said it would allow limited access to advocates for those individuals applying for emergency shelter. In light of the MOU, this first case was dismissed without prejudice on October 30, 1992.
The Washington Legal Clinic and several homeless families filed a second suit in the same court against the same defendant on April 5, 1993. The suit was filed on behalf of all "Homeless families seeking eligibility determinations after November 1, 1991, under the District of Columbia state plan for Emergency Assistance." The Plaintiffs' complaint and amended complaint are not available, but the Clearinghouse does have several substantive opinions from the case, from which this summary is derived. The original complaint listed six counts under which the plaintiffs sought relief. The first count alleged that the District had violated, under color of law, federal requirements governing the District's participation in the Emergency Assistance program under Title IV-A of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 602 et seq., compliance with which, the plaintiffs argued, was enforceable by private suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The second count alleged that the District had arbitrarily refused to evaluate the eligibility of applicants for services and did not provide them with oral or written notice of denial of shelter. The third and fifth counts involved allegations that the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights were violated when the District denied Legal Clinic advocates access to the Shelter Office waiting room (this appears to have been the subject of the earlier MOU.) Counts four and six involved due process and equal protection challenges relating to allegations that the District distributed public benefits in an arbitrary manner, and also to the District's enforcement of local laws, including one requiring the District to obtain all federal funding for emergency shelters for which it was eligible.
Three months after filing the second suit, the Plaintiff's filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction requiring the District to comply with federal and local laws governing the emergency assistance program. The day before a hearing was scheduled on the injunction motion, the District filed a supplemental memorandum in which it argued that the issue was moot because the City had opted to withdraw from the family shelter portion of its federally approved and funded emergency assistance program. On July 30, 1993 the Court denied the preliminary injunction in light of the District's ceasing to operate the disputed family shelter program.
On July 29, 1993, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, which added as a seventh claim for relief the allegation that the District's having opted to not apply for federal funding for the emergency family shelter program, and its elimination of those services, was in violation of local law.
The defendant then moved to have the case dismissed. On April 15, 1994 the Court (Judge Joyce Hens Green) denied this motion in part and granted it in part. The court dismissed the first and second counts, but allowed the other five claims to move forward. In the same order, the Court granted class certification and certified two of the named plaintiffs as class representatives. Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless v. Kelly, 1994 WL 823564 (D.D.C. 1993).
After the July 1993 order, there was an extended discovery period. A trial was conducted in May of 1995. On February 23, 1996, Judge Green entered her judgment, which was largely in favor of the Plaintiffs, finding that the plaintiff class had an entitlement to emergency shelter that amounted to a protected property interest and which was therefore sufficient to trigger due process protection. However, the court found that the District had not violated the equal protection clause. The Court found that the District had violated the First Amendment when it restricted the times when Legal Clinic advocates could enter the shelter office. The court issued an injunction ordering the District to develop policies and procedures that would not violate the plaintiff class' due process rights. Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless v. Barry, 918 F.Supp. 440 (D.D.C. 1996). On July 23, 1996, Judge Green denied the Defendant's motion for a stay pending the outcome of their appeal. In the same opinion she also issued orders relating to the documentation requirements imposed on applicants for public benefits by the District. Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless v. Barry, 1996 WL 422494 (D.D.C. 1996).
On March 4, 1997 the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals (Judge David S. Tatel, writing for a three-judge panel) reversed the lower court's decision with respect to the due process claim, holding that the Plaintiffs' entitlement to emergency shelter was not a property right under the law of the District of Columbia. It upheld the lower court's First Amendment findings. Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless v. Barry, 1997 WL 634555 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
This decision effectively ended the case. Alex Colbert-Taylor - 07/15/2013