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WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE HOMELESS IN WARD ONE AND FORMER LA CASA RESIDENTS?[1]

Currently designated warming centers are spuriously available to the homeless.  People cannot rely on any particular center being opened at any particular time, and must find out on a daily basis how to obtain shelter. Former La Casa residents and other homeless in the Columbia Heights community were denied shelter when temperatures were below 32oF, in violation of the Homeless Services Reform Act. For instance, on the night of February 21, 2011, people slept outside in the snow or had to seek shelter in the hallways of nearby apartment buildings, laundromats, and on heating grates in order to get through the night.

New allegations emerge in light of the District’s failure to provide adequate shelter this winter

La Casa plaintiffs argue that Shelter is a basic requirement for survival. The “substantive component” of due process “forbids the government to infringe certain ‘fundamental’ liberty interests.”[2]  The Supreme Court protects those rights preserving life, and such rights logically include the right to shelter, which one undoubtedly needs to preserve one’s life.[3]  The courts must interpret existing laws within “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” in guarding against subjecting an individual “to a fate of ever-increasing fear and distress.”[4]  What’s more, substantive rights must be considered in light of international norms and conventions that identify a human right to shelter.

Fundamental rights have been violated by the District’s failure to provide adequate housing or shelter to its inhabitants.  Shelter is a basic requirement for survival.  The denial of reasonable access to shelter undermines a persons ability to survive, and undermines a persons ability to ever achieve self-sustainability.

In 2008, the D.C. City Council declared D.C. a Human Rights City, in turn declaring to use a human rights framework to “assist in identifying the issues and inform the actions in our DC communities, for meaningful, positive economic and social change,” with the ultimate purpose being the realization of goals such as “sustainable development.”  This Resolution is evidence of the District’s commitment to incorporate international human rights into its decision-making framework.

In addition, the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005[5] (HSRA) was passed in 2005 “to reaffirm the District of Columbia’s commitment to addressing the problem of homelessness,”[6]  and a stated goal of the Plan was “meeting immediate shelter and housing needs” by building new facilities and creating better shelters and supportive housing.[7]   The approaches taken by the HSRA, in particular, the inclusion of both short- and long-term strategies towards ending homelessness, parallels that of the progressive realization of the right to housing required under international human rights law.

The Human Rights Resolution by the D.C. Council, together with the HSRA illustrate the District’s commitment to the realization of the right to housing. A failure to incorporate an international human rights framework into the interpretation of statutes such as the HSRA would render the Council’s Declaration as a Human Rights City meaningless.[8]

The right to housing is enshrined in a number of international and regional human rights instruments, and is implicated in even more.  The U.S. must meet minimum international obligations as a signatory of these human rights instruments.[9]

A State is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty when…it has signed the treaty or has exchanged instruments constituting the treaty subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, until it shall have made its intention clear not to become a party to the treaty.[10]

What is going on with the La Casa land?

The land formerly occupied by La Casa Shelter was conveyed to developers Donatelli et al for $10.00 dollars and is now being redeveloped for luxury apartments as part of Highland Park West.[11]  According to the Findings of Fact in Zoning Commission Order No. 07-02B, an approved PUD contemplates the construction of an 82 bed community based residential facility (“CBRF”) as an addition to the existing Highland Park building.[12]  This CBRF theoretically will be constructed on Lot 885 by the District at the District’s cost and under the auspices of the Department of Real Estate Services and will be operated by the Department of Human Services (“DHS”).[13] But is should be noted that “DHS has approximately half of the money needed to construct the facility.”[14]  No further information has been made available regarding the construction of this CBRF, despite requests by Plaintiffs.  In addition, Plaintiffs note a discrepancy and apparent erosion in the affordable housing requirements set forth in Order No. 07-02B.[15]

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