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Homeless group wins $1 million in lawsuit

A federal jury has ordered the city of Boise to pay $1 million to an organization that helps homeless people for discriminating against women and children and retaliating against the organization when board members complained.

The verdict was handed down Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court in the lawsuit brought by Community House Inc.

“The city respectfully disagrees with the jury’s decision and will be reviewing all its options to reverse this verdict,” Boise city spokesman Adam Park said in a prepared statement released Sept. 13.

Community House and the city of Boise worked together in the 1990s to build and run a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, funded largely through federal grants and private donations. The city owned the building and administered some of the grant funds, and Community House operated the shelter and soup kitchen, providing emergency shelter and transitional housing to homeless men, women and children.

But over time the relationship began to unravel, and in 2003 the city began looking for a new organization to run the shelter.

When officials with Community House learned that the Boise Rescue Mission — which houses only men — was likely to take over, it filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act contending that the move amounted to discrimination by the city because the women, children and family groups that lived at the shelter would be left with no place to go.

The complaint further strained the relationship between city leaders and the organization. In 2005, the city of Boise officially entered into a lease-and-purchase agreement with the Boise Rescue Mission, passing an ordinance to make the building a shelter for men only.

That’s when Community House sued in federal court, contending that the city was discriminating against women and children and that it was violating provisions of both the Idaho and U.S. Constitutions by becoming too entangled with a religious organization, the Boise Rescue Mission. Community House also contended in the lawsuit that the city retaliated against the organization after it filed the Fair Housing Act complaint by forcing it to give up the shelter building or risk losing its grant money, which was administered through city coffers.

The city strongly denied those allegations, and the lawsuit bounced through the federal court system for several years, going to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice on different issues.

The matter finally went to trial in Boise’s U.S. District Court at the end of August. After 11 days of testimony and other proceedings, the jury returned its verdict: Boise was guilty of discriminating against women and children, the city did retaliate against Community House, and the city did violate the state constitution by giving aid to a religious group. The jury rejected Community House’s claim of a U.S. Constitution violation, as well as claims that the city denied reasonable accommodations for some specific individuals.

Howard Belodoff, the attorney who represented Community House, said the organization was pleased with a win in what he characterized as a David-versus-Goliath kind of case.

“The money will be used as it was intended,” Belodoff said of the $1 million verdict, “to house and provide for homeless people: Homeless families, women and children.”

Park, the city’s spokesman, released a prepared statement in which the city denied engaging in any discrimination and noted the other homeless shelters and treatment facilities the city has worked with over the past decade.

The city’s statement said the $1 million award is “without basis, as no evidence of specific financial loss was presented at trial.” But even if the city fails in its efforts to overturn or reduce the damages, the payout will likely be covered by Boise’s insurance policy and not come from taxpayer funds, according to the statement.

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