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

A seven-year case against the District government following the closing of La Casa homeless shelter in 2010 has encountered another roadblock as of early January 2017.

Following a dismissal last year from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the volunteer attorneys for the case filed a petition asking that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s ruling. However, they must locate at least one of the original 42 plaintiffs of the case within 60 days to file an updated declaration requesting a fee waiver. Otherwise, the costs to pursue the case would be prohibitive for the attorneys to move forward.

The case, William Boykin et al. vs. Muriel Bowser et al., aims to reopen men’s shelters in the higher-income wards of the District to oppose the city’s pushing out of the homeless to “pockets of poverty.” It began two mayors ago when the shelter was closed under Adrian Fenty’s administration. It was the last minimal-restriction or “low-barrier” shelter in the Northwest quadrant of D.C. and the only bilingual shelter in the city. The majority of its all-male residents were Black or Latino and many of them were people with physical or mental disabilities, according to the claims of the case.

The plaintiffs filed a class action suit claiming that the decision to close the shelter discriminated against its residents on the basis of race, also citing infractions to the Americans with Disabilities Act. They argued that the homeless population in D.C. is a vulnerable minority group protected by the Fair Housing Act based on its demographic makeup: 87 percent African-American and Latino, according to the original 2010 brief. According to a 2016 Point-in-Time count, 72 percent of single people experiencing homelessness identify as Black and 9 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino — still over an 80 percent majority.

However, these broad community demographics were not satisfactory for the U.S. Court of Appeals, which cited a lack of direct evidence for claims of discrimination based on race and disability status.

The dismissal was unfair given the challenges people experiencing homelessness face when giving testimony, according to Jane Zara, one of the attorneys representing the class of homeless men. She referred to the 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to include disparate impact, not just intentional discrimination, under the Fair Housing Act as precedence for this case.

“[The La Casa residents] have to go seek shelter in places where there are the least employment opportunities, the least transportation opportunities, forcing them to leave their communities,” she said in an interview.

The city’s defense also argues that the closing of La Casa and other low-barrier shelters is part of its push toward permanent supportive housing. Four years after La Casa closed, 40 PSH units were developed on the site and under the same name. Zara and her team argue that the people who are matched to PSH are not the same people who seek out low-barrier shelter.

Mayor Muriel Bowser is now the defendant of the case, which has been passed down as governments have transitioned. Zara recognizes the work Bowser has done to advocate for opening  homeless shelters for families in each ward of the District, but said that single Black homeless men are not as “politically popular” and are often relegated to the poorest wards.

Zara is hopeful they will reconnect with at least one plaintiff, but acknowledged inherent difficulty in keeping track of people living on the streets and in shelters concentrated in the low-income wards of D.C., where many La Casa residents are believed to have gone.

“We know over the years we’ve lost a lot of plaintiffs in these lawsuits to death and to just leaving or disappearing, so it’s very difficult,” she said. “It’s a David and Goliath thing.”

If you are one of the original 42 plaintiffs in the La Casa case or know information about the whereabouts of a plaintiff, please contact Jane Zara at [email protected] or 202-390-2449