- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A western Pennsylvania homeless shelter for battered spouses and their children has settled its lawsuit against the county’s Department of Human Services.

The 21-year-old shelter in Shaler Township is called HEARTH, short for Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training and Housing.

The shelter sued in September, claiming the county agency wrongly denied the shelter a designation as a “victim service provider” under federal Housing and Urban Development funding rules. As a result, the shelter said the county was trying to make it accept all homeless people, undermining its specific mission to abuse victims.

Under a settlement announced by both sides late Wednesday, HEARTH will continue to get county funding for this fiscal year and the 2016-17 fiscal year “and will serve homeless families with a preference for those families fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.”

The lawsuit said the previous ruling had jeopardized $530,000 in federal housing funds, which was about half the shelter’s annual funding, according to Judy Eakin, the shelter’s executive director.

The sides did not comment on the settlement or specify its terms beyond the joint statement.

When the lawsuit was filed last year, DHS spokesman Mark Bertolet issued a statement saying the agency “remains committed to meeting our mission. That includes addressing the needs of our community’s homeless residents and those at risk of homelessness through the Allegheny County Continuum of Care Board (as required by HUD).”

A federal law requires homeless shelters to not discriminate, but exceptions are made if the local Continuum of Care Board determines the shelter provides a unique service that could be compromised if it were open to the general population.

Eakin said when the lawsuit was filed last year that the Department of Human Services led HEARTH to believe that it was ready to grant that approval, but the board sent HUD a letter in July recommending against approval.

In court documents filed before the settlement, HEARTH attorneys said the county tried to assign a man with a history of domestic violence allegations to the shelter last year. The shelter blocked that placement, which occurred after the county activated a new computer system meant to make the assignment of homeless individuals to shelters more efficient and fair.

The joint statement doesn’t say whether the shelter will now accept men as part of the homeless families fleeing domestic violence.

The lawsuit sought a court order designating HEARTH as a “victim service provider” - a special designation that would enable it to serve domestic violence victims only - because 94 percent of the more than 700 adults and children served by the shelter in two decades were victims of domestic violence.

The joint statement says only that the shelter will remain a “service provider” for the agency.

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