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.”
Very infrequent look into the lives we hope we never have to live. And the lies and hysteria around the people living there is astounding. Why disparage them, when they face an uphill battle to get back on the grid as it is? Why not help people get back on their feet, since some of these complainers profess to care about both humanity and the environment. This article belies the prejudice these folks living in the less than optimal conditions on Binford face. Shame on those who claim to care but really just hate.
Meg, Do you live in Novato? Maybe these squatters can camp-out on your street in front of your house, contaminating your “space” if you think this is so wonderful….
SHAME ON YOU FOR NOT PROTECTING OUR WETLAND IN NOVATO!!!
Since you’re so keen on judging others, please describe your way of life so we can judge how bad you’re doing to protect the environment: cars, energy consumption, type of food you buy, flights frequency, number of children.
Please show respect, or bring actual proof, so far it looks like you have neither.
The couple lived in Sonoma, where according to the article rent was nearly half as it is in Marin. So instead of goin somewhere cheaper when they couldn’t afford it they went somewhere 2x as expensive.
I want to live in Beverly Hills, but I cant afford it so I live somewhere cheaper. Its called living within your means. Plenty of cheap space in the Valley. People squat there because it’s nice and people allowed it, not because they have no other choices.
I was once homeless and lived in an old motor home. I tried everything to rent a place to put it, no luck. I TOTALLY feel for these folks. Look at their financial situation and age. They’re doing nothing wrong, just trying to survive. Let them. For those of us with traditional homes, but for the grace of God, this could be you.
Nicely stated, Jon.
thank you jon. how right you are. not really sure why rv’s on the side of the road are bothering anyone. as bad as it is for these folks, i feel worse for those who don’t even have an rv, and i believe there are alot more of those folks.
i was just reading a story about a first nations man in canada who was homeless and he lived in a nativity scene for a month (straw bedding ). god bless all these folks.
Thanks for this.
So nice to see some calm and compassionate reporting rather than the typical inflammatory screed pandered online. As a Novato resident, I thank you.
I would like to see dumpsters, showers, toilets, people in charge 24 hours a day, to have it run like a small city. People do need to clean up after themselves. I have homeless living very close to me and I’m glad they have at least a tent to live in. As long as people are taking care of themselves as best they can, leave them alone and give them the help they need.
Why no mention AT ALL of the meth arrests and illegal guns at Binford Road that have been reported by others?
In this article, the deputy speaks about an arrest involving drugs and a gun. The sheriff’s office made another arrest last weekend, after the Pacific Sun went to press.
Now I know what completely, utterly biased reporting looks like!
Francis – the article is based on facts unlike the national tabloids that are based on sensationalism. Do you believe the Deputy Sheriff assigned to Binford Rd is biased?
Jason Sarris – you are so WRONG!!! All these criminals are doing is contaminating a protected wetland area. There are rules AGAINST camping there…I think YOU are BIASED!!!
Laurie – A person is not a criminal just because they are homeless. You might want to brush up on the law.
Nikki, thank you for this well-researched, nuanced, and compassionate story. Great that you reached out to the tabloids too.
Thank you for the thoughtful article. I drive on this road often and I think there may be a typo in the text. The speed limit on Binford Road is not 55 mph. I believe it is 35 mph.
The speed limit is 55 mph on Binford Road. I have checked this information with Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan and the Marin County Department of Public Works.
As further explanation from the DPW: “There is no speed limit posted on Binford Road; by default under the California Vehicle Code it is 55mph.”
GREAT article as it shares more unbiased facts based & personally experienced by writer as in truly researched by going to actual Sources!; and helps Xplain so much more than just oppositional fearmongering rhetoric. This Homeless RV Encampment is a complex issue with No EZ fix & ALL is Not SO Xact Or is as it appears just from driving by to those looking from outside in…
When there is ANY criminal activity or arson or destruction of protected habitat or illegal harassment of ANY individuals- then Law Enforcement & Fish & Game should appropriately handle & protect those victimized-whether People or Wildlife!
WE the People have the RIGHT to Request & Demand what WE do believe to be Best actions from our elected Leaders by becoming actively involved & speaking up to see that changes are made to improve ANY negatively challenging issues & situations in our view for ALL concerned
& COMPASSION for those struggling to get by is a free Gift we can share with those in Need for the Good of Us ALL…MKS
Do you live in Novato? Maybe these squatters can camp-out on your street in front of your house if you think this is so wonderful….
What I find interesting is the lack of truthful reporting here….Binford Road Squatters are camping on our “protected” wetland. The Squatters (drug addicts, mentally ill, and a few “down on their luck” are contaminating the wetlands with Human feces, urine, bloodied tampons, drugs (including fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. We’ve had overdoses here, and illegal drug activity. One RV burned due to “cooking” at 3:00 AM…where do you think the burned/H20/plastics/oils/gas go went put out??? STRAIGHT INTO THE WETLANDS!!! This is not a “posh” hangout – these people are violating EPA rules/laws and no one seems to care. Why is that?!?!?
Laurie, I invite you to educate yourself on the matter and also get some facts before shaming other people’s opinions. This article is the MOST accurate article On Binford rd so far and you are simply wrong about the things you are saying.
I appreciate the sharing of this article. I hope this sheds some light on the scenario and closer to finding a long-term solution as it’s necessary.
Since you seem to take pride in your in depth reporting then why don’t you run a license plate check on all Binford Rd vehicles to determine how many are registered outside Marin.
Let’s work with those who are from here or lost a job while in Marin. It makes no financial sense that someone from outside our county would look to live in one of the most expensive places in the States unless they were attracted the generosity of the community.
There are more factors at play, the folks at Binford rd don’t want to be there, they just don’t have anywhere else to go. Marin county is setting the bar with their approach to homelessness and finding real solutions. The county has taken steps to avoid new people from coming to binford.
So they don’t want to be there and don’t have anywhere to go? They have transportation. Explain to me why they would chose to live in one of the most expensive places in the United States. Let’s help those from here. It all starts with enforcing the laws.
Another great article by Nikki Silverstein!
I thank you unfortunatly but fortunate. I Bonnie Silveria thank you for your time and compassion. It will be because intelligent reporters as yourself have reached out of your ways to help and seek evidence as you write within. I admire you as great reporter and a compassionate person it takes a lot humanity to not only write but to seek first hand then to share it with the world. Thank you again you are appreciated by us all out here. We started coming together as a community and have meetings in bettering ourselves as to helping the neighbors around us to seek future homes as well as family and friends. You’ve helped us to improve ourselves and to be looked at as normal human beings not just trash. Sincerely, Binfordian’s
A BIG “Thank You” to: Nikki Silverstein! From ALL of us out here on Binford Rd.