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Hung Jury, Mistrial in DC Housing Activists' Case

Activists who took over abandoned Franklin School claim victory, vow to fight further evictions of homeless
WASHINGTON, DC - The trial of two members of the Mayday DC chapter of Homes Not Jails ended Tuesday with a hung jury and a mistrial. Citywide homeless advocates claim the seven-day battle in Superior Court battle by activists Jamie Laughner and Thomas Gomez, who represented themselves, as a victory in their struggle to bring the District's resources to bear on the homeless crisis here. Several jury members afterwards stated that the work the two activists have been doing on this issue had a direct impact on their inability to convict them on the charges of unlawful entry.

Gomez and Loughner were charged in connection with the August 9 takeover of the Franklin School, a historic landmark building in downtown Washington that had been vacant for almost two decades. Protesting the lack of affordable housing, shelter, and Spanish-language services in Washington, they demanded that the building, which is in the process of being sold to developers, be placed in a land trust and that the city revive its long dormant homesteading program.

While the city government refused, it did for the first time decide to make use of Franklin School in its hypothermia program this winter as a shelter for some 160 single adult men on the coldest days of the year. DC Mayor Anthony Williams made that announcement on October 31, one day before the official start of the city's hypothermia season.

City officials subpoenaed by the defendants made several startling revelations during the last days of the trial. Scott Barkin of the Office of Planning for the DC City Council testified that the city had considered using the Franklin School to serve the needs of very low-income District residents, including the 331 families now on the waiting list for shelter here. However, the idea was dropped in favor of striking a deal with a developer to rehab the building for 26 high-income families on the grounds that such a project would generate more property tax income. Asked to clarify that these 26 families would be "millionaires," Barkin said yes.

The city still intends to proceed with this plan, the trial further revealed. Lynn French, a city official in charge of homeless issues, who is responsible for closing and opening shelters, testified that the Franklin School will be closed on March 31. It currently serves 160 homeless men officially and 200 on average; the city has made no alternative provision either for where these people can stay or to find housing for them. Another shelter, the former Gale School, will also be closed that day. It now shelters between 80 to 85 women and 90 to 105 men at any given time. Again, no alternative shelter provision or housing has been made for these people.

Mayday DC activists including the defendants will try to stop the closures and additionally demand that housing be found for all those sheltered at the sites. [To express support for Mayday DC's demands, call Councilmember Sandy Allen, chair of the Committee on Human Services, and ask for an emergency hearing on the
matter at (202) 724-8045; Coucilmember Jim Graham, also on that committee; the Deputy Mayor in Charge of Human Services at (202) 727-8001; or the Department of Humans Services' Directors Office at (202) 279-6002.]

A new status hearing is scheduled for Loughner and Gomez on April 3 in Courtroom 219 at DC Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue. If convicted, both face up to six months in jail for the building takeover. Two other activists who were arrested with them on August 9 accepted a deal before the trial opened to plead guilty to unlawful entry and perform 40 hours of community service.

While they admit to taking part in the action, both Loughner and Gomez insist they did nothing wrong in entering the vacant school building to drop banners out its windows demanding affordable housing, a right to shelter, and a living wage. Instead, they insist that the building is subject to the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law passed in 1987 requiring states that receive money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to inventory publicly owned buildings to identify potential sites to turn over to community groups for shelter and other homeless services.

The Franklin School should have been subject to McKinney and turned over in accordance with its provisions long ago, Gomez and Loughner argue. They charge that city officials were negligent in applying the law, a charge that has been raised by activists and community groups across the country with regard to specific parcels of publicly owned land and buildings since McKinney's passage.

"It's been 15 years since passage of the McKinney Act made vacant buildings subject to being turned over for sheltering the homeless or for low-income housing," says Gomez. "Yet 15 years after its passage, few local governments have done more than to jail or attack activists who call for enforcement of the act's provisions."

The defendants also cited the Frigid Temperature Protection Act, passed in 1988 during the administration of former DC Mayor Marion Barry, which mandates that the city use available public buildings to shelter homeless people on days when the temperature falls below freezing. Gomez and Loughner contend that the Franklin School falls under the act, and documents made available to the defense in response to its subpoena of French make clear that city officials acknowledged this when they decided to use the school this winter in its hypothermia program.

The prosecutor contended that the decision to use the school was made after August 9 and therefore was not relevant to the case. But the defendants argued that school was subject to the frigid temperature law since at least 2000, when it was transferred from the Department of Education to the Office of Property Management as surplus.

The homeless crisis in the District continues to worsen, on a scale that is among the worst in the US. According to city records, some 13,800 District residents were forced to make use of homeless services in the past year, including 3,400 children. That represents a 40% increase since the start of the Williams administration, according to information made available by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

It also parallels an increase in poverty in the District. According to the Washington Post, one in five District households now lives in poverty, an increase of 8% since the late 1990s. For families with children, the picture was significantly worse: 31% of District children now live in poverty as compared to 16% in 1990, according to the US Census.

Despite this, the DC region remains one of the most prosperous in the nation, with average regional household income of some $98,000 dollars a year. Its housing market is also one of the tightest in the US, with a vacancy rate of less than 1% according to the US Association of Realtors. All of this is bad news for some 15,000 District residents on waiting lists for subsidized public housing or Section 8 vouchers. With higher income residents competing with them for housing, 50% of low-income residents who receive vouchers, often after waiting for years, were forced to return them unused.

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