Marin County became the hot tabloid topic this month with three sensational stories splashed across the pages of the New York Post and the Daily Mail.
The trio of articles scream about “posh” Marin allowing hundreds of “vagrants” and “tweakers” to live in recreational vehicles on Binford Road in Novato, bringing crime, drugs and devastation to the area. The New York Post calls Binford Road “shocking,” while the London-based Daily Mail maintains there are over two miles of vehicles, making it “one of the largest encampments in the country.”
I did some fact checking. In addition to interviewing county officials and law enforcement, I spent three days on Binford Road meeting its residents.
Actually, 86 people live in RVs and other vehicles on Binford Road, a stretch of pavement running alongside Highway 101 in an unincorporated part of Marin County. For years, homeless folks have occasionally taken up residence there, but the population swelled during the pandemic.
Most of the residents are from Marin; however, some have relocated from neighboring Sonoma County. Many municipalities in both counties now strictly enforce parking limits and RV parking bans. Binford Road may be the last haven around.
Bonnie Silveria, 53, arrived at Binford Road about two months ago, after losing her Rohnert Park home when her mother passed away. The RV where Silveria now lives has all the touches of home, with a small veranda overlooking the marsh. It took her a while to find a safe place to settle. Rohnert Park shooed her out and Petaluma made her move every 72 hours.
Silveria’s RV is one in a line of 135 vehicles extending 1.2 miles, with periodic breaks where there are no parked RVs, trailers or cars. Last month, county workers began installing berms and other barriers to prevent new people from taking up roadside residence.
The Binford Road encampment isn’t even close to being the largest in the country. In March, the Los Angeles Times reported on a six-mile-long camp with 425 recreational vehicles in LA County. The population at the “Zone,” a homeless encampment in Phoenix, has ranged from 500 to 1,000 people, although it is now being cleared block by block. The list goes on.
Both the New York Post and the Daily Mail call Marin “posh.” Sure, parts of Marin are pretty swanky. But Binford Road isn’t among them. In an area zoned for commercial and industrial use, the folks living in their vehicles share the neighborhood with an RV storage lot, a self-storage facility and a small county airport. Marin’s main freeway borders the west side of Binford Road and a marsh abuts the east.
The claims of criminal activity are exaggerated, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, which has a homeless outreach deputy assigned part-time to Binford Road. Last week, I did a ride-along with Deputy Mike Thompson while he patrolled the area.
“For an encampment that has close to 90 people, we get very few calls related to actual crime,” Thompson said. “Our department put out a social media post recently on an arrest involving drugs and a gun. A lot of people like to think that that happens every day, with every single person and every single trailer up here doing exactly that. There’s no evidence of it.”
Thompson provides a monthly report about Binford Road to the Marin County Board of Supervisors. Mostly, he said, activities consist of “nuisance behavior,” such as people walking in the road or illegally parked cars.
“The calls out here are very minor,” he said.
The stories of the people living on Binford Road aren’t unique. I’ve been covering homelessness for years, and the folks living on this two-lane road have the same issues as the scores of other unhoused people I’ve met. They cite lack of affordable housing as the chief reason they’re homeless, with job loss a close second.
Many working class folks live on Binford Road, people who leave in the morning for work and come back home to their RV in the evening, Thompson said. But they don’t earn enough for a permanent home.
The median monthly rent in Marin County for a two-bedroom is $3,950, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data. In Sonoma County, that same home rents for $2,432. Considering that a full-time, minimum wage worker grosses under $2,700 a month, it’s easy to grasp the gravity of the housing crisis.
Sprinkle in the impact of the pandemic, unexpected medical expenses, mental health issues and substance abuse, and one gets a pretty good picture of what sent people out to Binford Road.
Last week, while I walked Binford Road with Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan, residents Gale and Raymond Staley invited us into their trailer. The married couple, who fell in love three decades ago when they worked together in Petaluma, told us they used to own a home in Sonoma County, where they raised their three children.
Unfortunately, a series of incidents chipped away at their financial security. Around 2008, the Staleys joined six million other Americans who lost their homes during the banking crisis. When COVID hit, Raymond Staley, 62, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and other serious medical conditions, ending his 40-year career at Kmart and leaving him unable to work. Gale Staley, 65, a travel agent, was a casualty of the pandemic layoffs. In September, the couple moved to Binford Road when the Bel Marin Keys home they were renting was sold.
Often, as with the Staleys, it’s a combination of factors that send people down the path to homelessness. Providing stability and a leg up can set them on a new trajectory, which is the reason Supervisor Lucan is working to help the Staleys and their neighbors get back on their feet. Lucan is adamant that the current residents will not be displaced.
“We do not want to rip people from their housing, and we’re not enforcing a 72-hour parking rule,” Lucan said. “It took four to five years for Binford Road to grow like this. It’s going to take time to find better options for each of these individuals.”
The county has launched monthly service fairs at Binford Road to jump start the process. And the efforts are paying off. Three former Binford Road residents recently received permanent housing, according to Gary Naja-Riese, Marin County’s Homelessness Division director.
Naja-Riese says that multiple county departments have worked together to provide basic services, such as porta-potties, hand-washing stations and trash pickup. Sen. Mike McGuire secured $500,000 for the county from state surplus funds, with a significant portion going to Binford Road. The county is waiting to hear whether it will receive an additional $1.5 million in funding. And a social worker will soon be working full time overseeing Binford Road programs.
“The goal is to move people from Binford to permanent housing,” Naja-Riese said.
Clearly, it’s not the Wild West on Binford Road. This begs the question: Why did the New York Post and the Daily Mail descend on Novato—in the same four-day period—with reporters, photographers and drones, resulting in three stories that contain outlandish claims?
Exploitation comes to mind, as with the stark photos of the less than tidy areas belonging to a few tinkerers, mechanics and even a hoarder or two.
As Deputy Thompson and I drove past the possessions overflowing from an RV, he talked about his other law enforcement duty—serving court papers to citizens. It gives him a window into what goes on behind the closed doors of private homes.
“There are a lot of hoarders everywhere,” Thompson said. “We just don’t see them.”
I contacted the three tabloid reporters multiple times to ask about their coverage. Daily Mail reporter Emma Jones replied via Twitter and email, directing me to talk to her colleague, Josh Boswell, who also wrote about Binford Road. Boswell never responded, nor did Stephanie Pagones of the New York Post.
Sadly, the hyped representation in those papers only served to demoralize the residents of Binford Road.
“I don’t trust reporters,” said Ilan Miller, 59, a Binford Road resident. “Fake news. They made us look disgusting. These people, who don’t know the area and don’t know us.”
Miller, a handyman, hit hard times when his business dropped off during COVID. A tumor in his head is inoperable, although he can still do some work. He moved to Marin four years ago to be close to his family. Then his mother died, leaving him with funeral and burial bills.
As if the tabloid tales aren’t disheartening enough, Binford Road residents must also contend with locals who oppose the encampment. Tires have been slashed on motorhomes and other vehicles.
Cars whiz by at speeds higher than the 55 miles per hour limit, even with people walking on the narrow shoulder of the road to visit a neighbor or get to one of the restroom areas.
“It’s intentional,” Lucan said.
One particularly outspoken person who would like to see the Binford residents move out of the area is Novato resident Toni Shroyer, who lost her bid for a seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 2018.
Shroyer didn’t respond to my calls and emails, but she claimed on Facebook to possess “evidence of feces, toxins, oil, etc. going into the wetlands.” Her many photos of Binford Road failed to reveal more than some household trash.
Although Shroyer stated her Binford Road concerns are about the environment, it’s clear that’s not her only gripe. On social media, she discussed calling child protective services on a family living on Binford Road with an “underaged” daughter.
“Being homeless in and of itself is not a reason for investigation by Children and Family Services,” Naja-Riese said.
It seems unlikely that Shroyer will give up her campaign anytime soon. Thompson’s phone rang while I sat in his patrol car, and Shroyer’s ID popped up. She’s a frequent caller, he said.
Thompson takes it in stride, saying that he feels compassion for the people living on Binford Road, yet he also wants to be the voice of reason. He investigates the frequent complaints he receives about feces and oil directed into the lagoon, and he has found no proof. One call described a pipe going directly from an RV’s septic tank to the wetlands. It turned out to be a downspout, part of an awning.
“There is a resolution here,” Thompson said. “We can manage this in a way that allows people to exist safely and doesn’t harm the environment.”
Gale Staley is in agreement with Thompson, and said that she and her husband appreciate the beauty of the wetlands. She also had a message for the tabloids, Shroyer and anyone else dogging people on Binford Road: “I don’t think there’s anyone living out here by choice. It happened to us in a matter of a year. Eighteen months ago, we had it all. It can happen to anyone.”