By Tom Ramstack
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Monday ordered the District of Columbia to provide homeless families private rooms when temperatures drop below freezing instead of housing them in public recreation centers.
The ruling by District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of homeless people who said the housing offered by the United States capital placed their children in danger.
Washington's financial burden is outweighed by the "psychological harm of the most vulnerable members of our society, the children of the homeless" if they are denied safe housing, the judge said.
In some cases, the Washington families were put near recreation center basketball courts and separated from other homeless people and strangers by portable partitions.
Witnesses during the trial complained of bright lights, noise and odors from alcohol and marijuana smoke.
Je'nique Fultz, a homeless mother whose daughter was born March 14, testified she would carry her child to the bathroom with her because she was concerned for her safety.
Kim Katzenbarger, an attorney for the District of Columbia, told Okun the city would appeal his decision. City social workers testified that a record number of Washington families sought emergency housing this winter.
Washington's only shelter for homeless families with children was filled by early winter, forcing city officials to rent more than 400 motel rooms for them.
City officials then put homeless families in common areas of recreation centers. The capital went more than $1 million over its budget for homeless family housing this winter.
Okun's ruling is a temporary order that is effective through the rest of the cold weather season. A class-action lawsuit against the District of Columbia seeking a permanent solution to winter housing for homeless families continues.
The shortage of affordable and emergency housing in the economically booming U.S. capital mirrors trends in other large cities. Some cities, including Philadelphia, New York and Minneapolis, are trying various strategies to close the gap.
On March 17, Philadelphia's city council announced a plan to use tax incentives and bonds to redevelop 1,500 vacant, city-owned properties for low-income housing.
(Editing by Ian Simpson and Gunna Dickson)
(In paragraph 7, this story corrects to show that city social workers testified that a record number of homeless sought emergency housing, not the attorney Katzenbarger)