Twenty-one Ward 3 residents in Washington, D.C., have sued Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council in order to stop the building of a homeless shelter in the area, alleging they were not consulted in the planning process.
The lawsuit encompasses the complaints of 21 citizens living around the McLean Gardens and Cathedral Heights neighborhoods. It claims the District did not give advanced notice of its plan to residents living around the proposed site and how it would impact nearby government facilities.
In addition, the suit, filed under the name “Neighbors for Responsive Government” in the D.C. Superior Court, alleges Ward 3’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission was not allowed to give input to the mayor’s office or D.C. Council regarding the design of the shelter located on Idaho Avenue NW, which is to house 50 apartment-style units.
The idea to open a new homeless shelter in Ward 3 is a result of Bowser’s decision in February to close the D.C. General Family Shelter, a building notorious for its unsanitary and dangerous conditions, and to open eight new, smaller ones throughout the city.
Ward 3’s shelter is marked to start construction in June 2017 along with the shelters in Wards 4, 5 and 6. In February of 2017, construction of shelters in Ward 7 and Ward 8 are scheduled to begin.
Bowser’s original plan to address homelessness, announced in February alongside the decision to close D.C. General, faced backlash from the D.C. Council due to high costs and the decision to lease private land for shelters rather than use cheaper public property.
The D.C. Council agreed to a new plan earlier this year after a long negotiation process with the mayor’s office and a public hearing under the condition that the new homeless shelters would be built on public land.
David Brown, the lawyer for the 21 residents who filed the lawsuit, said the lawsuit’s reasoning stems from the council’s decision to switch locations from private property to public land, which in the case of Ward 3 is the Second District Police Department.
“The citizens are basically trying to uphold their right by protesting the law to have input into the governmental decisions that have a significant effect on property owned by the government. They were denied that opportunity when the Council suddenly switched location from private property to a location on the Second District Police Station,” Brown said. “And all we are asking the court to do is to de-validate that choice until it is done properly.”
Bowser’s office and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D) declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the District General Counsel’s policy, which is to refrain from commenting on ongoing litigation.
General Counsel Ellen Efros confirmed that the counsel is defending the D.C. Council and refused to comment further.
“I think all I can say at this point is that we will defend the lawsuit on behalf of the Council and we otherwise do not comment on pending litigation,” Efros wrote in an email to The Hoya.
According to Amanda Brouillard (NHS ’18), co-president of Georgetown’s Homeless Outreach Programs and Education, a student organization dedicated to addressing issues of hunger and homelessness in the District, the issue is complex because most residents agree with the decision to close D.C. General but not necessarily to build new shelters in their wards.
“It’s obviously a very controversial issue for some of the wards. I think the sentiment about closing D.C. General is pretty unanimous — most people agree that that shelter needs to close because conditions are very poor,” Brouillard said. “The issue is that a lot of people don’t want a new shelter in their own backyard, which is kind of an oversimplification.”
Brouillard also said that residents in Ward 3 could be concerned about the close proximity of the new shelter and various stereotypes of the homeless population.
“Some of the concerns are definitely legitimate. A lot of people are concerned about the cost, whether it’s cost-effective to build some of the shelters in the areas the mayor proposed. I think a lot of people are concerned about crime and people are also concerned about how people living and using the shelters will be able to adjust to the environment because some of them are affluent areas,” Brouillard said.
Brown conceded that some of the reasoning for the lawsuit can be attributed to the “not in my backyard” mindset of the plaintiffs. However, he contended that the residents have a right to provide input into the decisions of where to place the shelter.
“It is certainly true that they are concerned about having this in their backyard,” Brown said. “But in the dialogue process, those concerns will prove to be real or they will be answered.”
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C Chairman Carl Roller said he is not against the idea of a homeless shelter in Ward 3. Rather, his concerns stem from the fact that D.C. has been unresponsive and indifferent toward his and other residents’ ideas.
“I’m not against it, per se,” Roller said to The Washington Post on Aug. 24. “I just think we need those answers. Every time we ask a question, we get a nonanswer, which leads us to think they don’t have any answers.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) defended the city’s planning process for the homeless shelters, saying residents had more than three months to voice their concerns over the shelter’s locations during public hearings. Mendelson is confident the city will win in court.
“The process we followed is the process we follow with all legislation,” Mendelson said to The Washington Post. “In fact, the bill and discussion about the different sites was in the public domain for three and a half months. There were community meetings.”
According to Brown, the defendants have 60 days to answer the complaint from the date at which it was filed, Aug. 23.
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