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La Casa Shelter was the District’s only bi-lingual shelter. It housed 130 men in emergency and transitional beds on any given night, but closed in October 2010. The shelter was located on Irving Street in Columbia Heights and the men it served were primarily African American and Hispanic. La Casa Shelter was the last minimal-restriction, or “low-barrier,” shelter in Northwest. Since closing, the location was conveyed to a developer as part of a luxury apartment complex.  The 40 transitional beds were moved north to the Petworth area, still managed by the Coalition for the Homeless. A state of the art permanent supportive housing facility bearing the same name was built years later farther down the block on Irving Street, serving 40 new clients and operated by Friendship Place.

A group of homeless men who stayed at La Casa sued the city under the Fair Housing Act, claiming discrimination based on race and national origin. The lawsuit is also claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act because a large percentage of the men are dealing with mental or physical disabilities.

The plaintiffs’ appellate argument will be heard Friday, May 6, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia at 333 Constitution Ave, NW in Court Room 31.

The suit asserts that because more than 87 percent of D.C.’s homeless population is African American, homeless people are covered as a protected class from discriminatory treatment. The suit further asserts that there are serious deficiencies at every shelter where the displaced men were able to move to after the closing of the La Casa low-barrier shelter in Columbia Heights. There were complaints of beds being denied every night in these other shelters.

The first complaint of discrimination, Boykin et al. v. Adrian Fenty, was filed  in U.S. District Court after the shelter closed. It was later renamed Boykin et al. v. Vincent Gray when the mayoral administrations changed. District Court dismissed the Boykin complaint for not presenting expert testimony about the bad conditions present in shelters.

The District government argues that closing the Columbia Heights shelter, and shifting these men outside the rapidly-gentrifying area, is part of the “redesign” of their policy for homeless men. The District’s defense of this policy came solely from its official administrator: Fred Swan.

The complaint argues that between La Casa and the centrally-located Franklin School Shelter that was closed in 2007, 390 beds were removed from the shelter system. The District countered that these closings did not cause a net loss of shelter space. Instead, the District states that the displaced people can be absorbed into other parts of the shelter system and that the redesign adds capacity via new permanent supportive housing. This last claim is what the Boykin group contests.

The housing discrimination issue here, under the FHA, is whether the new housing policy and the closing of the La Casa shelter, had a “disparate impact” on the “protected class,” the Boykin group. According to Federal law, if the Boykin plaintiffs can show the closing had a significant impact on them – a causal link – they are entitled to relief.

Oral arguments will be heard at the Friday hearing. The final decision will be issued in writing at a later date.