In a victory for the homeless, a judge Friday barred much of the government from selling surplus property that might be used for sheltering Americans who have no place to live.
The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch, bars the General Services Administration and four other agencies from disposing of most federally owned property until they comply with the McKinney Act. The act requires federal agencies to turn over buildings and land suitable for shelters to local governments and nonprofit organizations.
“Pitifully few of the numerous unused federal properties are being evaluated for their suitability to assist the homeless,” Gasch wrote in his opinion. “Those that are found to be suitable are not being made available. . . . “
Since the McKinney Act became law in July, 1987, the government has identified 12 properties nationwide it said were suitable as homeless shelters, and only four of these have been transferred to social service agencies.
Sought by Coalition
Friday’s preliminary injunction was sought by the National Coalition for the Homeless, three other nonprofit groups and a homeless New York City man. The coalition estimates that about 3 million Americans have no place to live.
The order does not cover private houses transferred to the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration after owners default on government-insured mortgages.
Justice Department lawyers are studying the order and “are in the process of deciding where they will go from here,” department spokesman Brad Marman said. They believe the injunction applies only to the five agencies named in the lawsuit, which besides the GSA are the VA and the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, he said.
But Maria Foscarinis, a lawyer and director of the coalition’s Washington office, said she thinks Gasch’s ruling covers all unused or under-utilized government land and buildings because HUD is a defendant in the suit. Under the McKinney Act, HUD must collect information about properties from other agencies and decide which properties could be used as shelters.
Calls Interpretation Narrow
Gasch said the government’s interpretation of the law is so narrow as “to exclude almost all unused federal properties from consideration . . . " and “would lead to absurd results if it were actually applied.”
The judge also found that HUD failed “to follow the letter of the statute” because it allowed individual agencies to decide which properties could become homeless shelters instead of deciding itself.
A GSA list of properties no longer needed or wanted by federal agencies and obtained by the Coalition for the Homeless contained 321 properties consisting of 1,347 buildings and 22,001 acres, none of which has been reported to Congress, court documents show.