Breaking News: Novato Homeless Win Restraining Order Against the City

The Novato Homeless Union won  a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the City of Novato from a U.S. District Court judge yesterday.  The order from federal Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers prevents Novato from evicting the homeless out of a downtown park and enforcing restrictive anti-camping ordinances that were passed last month.

About 25 homeless people have been living in Lee Gerner Park for more than a year. It has been a contentious issue. Novato residents unhappy about the homeless living in the park regularly hold demonstrations, speak out at city council meetings and post derisive comments on social media.

[NOTE: The Novato Homeless Union’s TRO application and the judge’s order are available to view here.]

The Novato City Council had been hesitant to act during the Covid-19 pandemic, but when the lockdown ended last month, they unanimously passed the anti-camping ordinances.

The ordinances prevent camping within 50 feet of “critical infrastructures” and bodies of water. According to one of the ordinances, “critical infrastructure may include, but is not limited to, government buildings, such as schools, fire stations, police stations, jails, or courthouses; hospitals; structures, such as antennas, bridges, roads, train tracks, drainage systems, or levees; or systems, such as computer networks, public utilities, electrical wires, natural gas pipes, telecommunication centers, or water sources.”

In addition, the city prohibited daytime camping, which would necessitate the need for homeless people to strike their tents, pack up their belongings, and disperse from 7am to 9pm. 

Violations of the ordinances are punishable as a misdemeanor; however, enforcement won’t begin until the CDC relaxes restrictions about keeping homeless encampments in place or Marin County reaches a 90% vaccination rate for residents 16 and older.

The Novato Homeless Union’s filing in court for the TRO said Novato’s “definition of ‘critical infrastructure’ is so vague and over broad that virtually any and every public space in the City of Novato can be and likely will be so designated and thereby off-limits to the unhoused.”

The Union also claims the ordinances disregarded Martin v Boise, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling affirming people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city cannot offer them an adequate shelter option. Marin County has a shortage of available beds for the homeless.

Jason Sarris, a member of the Novato Homeless Union and plaintiff in the action says he is excited that the court reacted quickly, within just 24 hours of the filing, and he believes it is an indication that Novato’s ordinances are faulty.

“I don’t think the homeless should be criminalized just for existing,” Sarris said.

The Novato City Council voted 5-0 earlier this week to enter into an agreement with nonprofit Homeward Bound to provide up to 15 spaces in its Novato shelter for Novato homeless residents. The Homeward Bound shelter typically accepts homeless people from anywhere in the county and prior to the agreement with Novato, it did not reserve beds for people from a particular city.

However, with 310 homeless people tallied in Novato during the last homeless count in early 2019, the 15 beds won’t be enough to allow the city to skirt Martin v Boise.

In response to the temporary restraining order, Novato issued a press release on Friday saying the city will now delay providing the shelter beds and other related services to the 15 homeless residents, “until the Court fully considers this matter.”

“There is nothing in the TRO that prevents the city, in partnership with Homeward Bound or any other organization, from offering housing to anyone right now,” Anthony Prince, attorney for the Novato Homeless Union, said on Friday in response to the city’s decision. “The TRO only enjoins the enforcement of the ordinances and the forcible removal of people from Lee Gerner Park. It’s not the equivalent of somehow preventing an offer of housing assistance and yet the city is trying to make it look like it was the fault of the court and the fault of the homeless bringing the lawsuit that they now cannot go forward with the plan they voted on Tuesday night. This is a pretty thinly veiled and politically motivated attack on the Homeless Union and a back-handed way of calling the court’s authority into question, as well.”

Prince represents the members of the Novato Homeless Union on a pro bono basis. He is also representing the Sausalito Homeless Union in their legal battle against the City of Sausalito. That city was enjoined earlier this year from enforcing a ban on daytime camping, although the court did allow the city to move a homeless encampment from the downtown area to a city-owned park.

Judge Rogers scheduled a hearing for the Novato matter on July 28 at 1:30pm; however, Novato’s counsel has requested an extension on the deadline for the hearing.

Nikki Silverstein
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