photo lining up for shelter at the now close la casa
credit: Nancy Shia

A group of men experiencing homelessness, who sued the city government of Washington, D.C. six years ago over housing discrimination, await the decision of a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia panel.

The homeless men charged District government with discrimination in the decision to close the minimum-restriction La Casa homeless shelter in October 2010, which was located in the rapidly-gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood. The suit also recognized a 2008 closing of the Franklin School men’s shelter, located downtown. The plaintiffs—predominantly Latino and African American—argued that they are part of a protected class.

Eighty-seven percent of Washington’s homeless population is African American and Latino, according to the plaintiffs’ brief, filed in 2010. Those numbers are consistent with a 2016 regional report on homelessness, which found 8,350 people to be homeless on any given night in D.C. The men argued that this demographic breakdown makes the homeless community a vulnerable minority group, protected under the Fair Housing Act. Their complaint charges that after the shelter closings, the men had to seek accommodations in overcrowded shelters outside of their communities, which frequently turned them away.

The plaintiffs also claim disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act because many of the men have mental and physical disabilities. The La Casa and Franklin School shelters were the last minimal-restriction, or “low-barrier,” shelters in the heart of the city, convenient to transportation, job sites, government agencies and nonprofit service providers. La Casa was also the only bilingual low-barrier shelter in the city.

Nancy Shiah

Signs posted the day of the 2010 La Casa low-barrier shelter closing in Columbia Heights. | Photo by Nancy Shia

The District’s defense argues that the closure of these two shelters is part of a deliberate policy for dealing with the city’s homeless issues by converting emergency shelter space to Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). The alternative aims to support a person experiencing homelessness to live as independently as possible with services like social workers, medical personnel and counselors, provided by the city.

While the city did sell the La Casa site—composed of several trailers and one permanent structure—to a developer who built luxury apartments, they kept part of it for 40 state-of-the-art PSH units which opened four years after the low-barrier shelter closed. It is not clear where the homeless men who used the La Casa and Franklin Street shelters went after the closings, except that most stayed in the area for whatever services they could receive.

The District says that while the 300 emergency beds formerly at Franklin School shelter and 90 at La Casa were taken away, they were replaced with 600 PSH beds across the city, a net gain of 210 beds. The defense claims that people experiencing homelessness were accommodated by the new program, and therefore, that there was no discrimination.

Jane Zara, an attorney for the homeless men and an advocate for ending homelessness in the District, is skeptical of the government’s data. She says that despite how the numbers suggest there was enough PSH to accommodate the same number of homeless people that inhabited the shelters, actual accountability in the form of tracking and caring for the specific individuals who stayed there is missing. District government relied on the testimony and evidence of one man, Fred Swan, a leader in the project.

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“There are contradictions as to what the evidence of record is,” Zara said in an interview. “We never saw any report about what the accountability was; it all came from Fred Swan’s declaration, without any evidence to back it up.”

Zara said that when La Casa and Franklin Street shelters closed, the displaced homeless men were forced to go outside the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Ward 1 to far-flung shelters in Wards 5, 7 and 8. Those shelters were usually in bad repair and lacking bilingual services.

She added that almost all of the 40 PSH beds provided as part of the La Casa site redesign went to others, predominantly homeless veterans who were higher on the waitlist for assistance.

There is no credible way to track what happened to the La Casa group of men seeking nightly shelter after their homebase closed, except that most of them have opted to stay in the Columbia Heights area and live on the streets. Zara emphasized that it is difficult to verify the large number of beds, 600, the city claims to have added as a result of the PSH program.

“It’s a constantly moving shell-game. It became a competition to provide PSH units in these other, poorer wards so they could get city money for it; they could get on-market rates for housing the vulnerable,” she said.

Zara worries that the PSH policy is just the latest iteration in the District’s attempt to figure out a viable policy for dealing with homelessness and affordable housing. “What we want is a real and verifiable accounting of the money spent for this program,” she said. “We’re wanting any transparency that can be provided by this program.”

The U.S. District Court dismissed the La Casa group’s complaint before they appealed, stating they lacked expert testimony about the decrepit conditions of the alternative shelter options the men resorted to. The plaintiffs said they do not want to move out of the Columbia Heights area, but would rather stay on the streets, and go to places in their local community.

Nancy Shiah
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La Casa low-barrier shelter residents constructed temporary housing in the alley behind the shelter lot after it was closed in 2010. The empty future-home of luxury condos can be seen on the other side of the fence. | Photos courtesy of Nancy Shia

A number of homeless men still in the neighborhood were interviewed for this story recently at a breakfast program in the basement of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church on Newton Street in Columbia Heights.

A man who gave his name as Baltasar is happy to be living in PSH at the redeveloped La Casa site. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I feel beautiful, sleep well. I feel good (with) what the government has given me.”

Baltasar has a job washing dishes at the Washington Hilton and said that after the La Casa closing he was living on the street for a year and was angry. He was staying in a trailer at La Casa when they shut it down. He felt double-crossed.

Another former resident, who wished to remain anonymous, criticized the low-barrier shelter but recognized that it was better than nothing. “La Casa was pathetic, I’ve been in better foxholes,” said the man, a veteran. He feels neglected. “There’s a big lot with big apartments and one less shelter.”

One recurring major complaint among the homeless men is that other shelters are at the outskirts of the city and difficult to get to. “Here’s the city center,” the veteran explained, using his napkin to represent Washington. “You’ve got two [shelters] as far as you can go north, any further and you’re in Maryland.” He moved his finger up and right to the napkin’s edge. “And one as far as you can go South, before you’re in Maryland.” He moved his finger down to the napkin’s edge. “CCNV is a shelter downtown, but they’re different. It’s hard to get into — very selective.”

“I call them The Big 3: 801, New York Avenue and Adam’s,” he said, naming shelters in Northeast and Southeast D.C. “If you can’t see them, they don’t exist. And you can hide them in places like the warehouse district. I call it hiding the homeless.”

Alex Peterkin lived in the La Casa low-barrier shelter before it closed and said he mostly stays outside now. He tried sleeping at the 801 East shelter in Southeast immediately after La Casa’s closing, taking a bus from Columbia Heights in the evening and returning on it in the morning. But one day he missed the morning bus and had to walk across town. He stopped going to the shelter after that.

“When the weather is nice it’s no problem sleeping outside,” Peterkin said. He grew up living at 18th Street and Columbia Rd NW and considers Columbia Heights home. “I hope the [lawsuit] succeeds and I can get somewhere to stay.”