Controversy Surrounds Growing Sausalito Homeless Encampment

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Camper Mike Arnold surveys donated food options in the encampment kitchen. Photo: Nikki Silverstein

Sausalito residents have a new view and many NIMBYs aren’t happy about it. What started out in late December as one unhoused man living in a tent on the waterfront next to Dunphy Park has turned into an entire encampment of homeless folks.

About 13 people inhabit the growing tent city. Some relocated from encampments in San Rafael and Novato. Others, who were forced off the open waters of Richardson Bay, previously lived in a close-knit community of mariners often called anchor-outs.

Most camp residents say they would prefer permanent housing, whether on land or water, yet they don’t have the financial means to pay for it. Apparently, neither does Marin County.

For those experiencing homelessness, there’s a long waiting list for housing, including temporary shelter, according to the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services. Veterans and the most vulnerable are given priority.

Several former anchor-outs say they became homeless when their operable boats were seized and destroyed by the Richardson’s Bay Regional Authority (RBRA), a local government agency serving Belvedere, Mill Valley, Tiburon and unincorporated Southern Marin. Sausalito is a separate entity from the RBRA, but both follow the directives of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency regulating development in and around the San Francisco Bay.

The BCDC wants the local entities to enforce the applicable 72-hour anchorage law, with the goal of discouraging mariners from dropping anchor long-term in Richardson Bay.

Currently, the RBRA has 103 boats in its territory, down from 135 in November, and the BCDC is pressuring it to whittle down the number as quickly as possible.

Curtis Havel, RBRA harbormaster, is responsible for enforcing the 72-hour law and has the authority to seize boats in violation. Derelict vessels may be destroyed. That’s the reason Havel often patrols the anchorage with a county social worker, who works to help find housing, which is virtually non-existent right now, for the anchor-outs.

The BCDC’s marching orders have created an extremely tense relationship between Havel and the mariners. They follow each other on social media. Havel seeks to monitor their movements and they try to stay one step ahead of him.

During the pandemic lockdown last year, the RBRA suspended enforcement, except for unoccupied boats. Though the pandemic is still raging, that policy has changed somewhat.

“There’s no official moratorium,” Havel said. “But we’re still only taking marine debris.”

Jeremy “Jack” Casimir, 45, disputes Havel’s claim. He says he moved into camp when the RBRA seized his operable sailboat last week. On Jan. 25, Casimir left his vessel on the anchorage to get provisions in advance of a storm and Havel towed it to the Army Corps of Engineers in Sausalito before the mariner returned. The 1976 Newport 32 sailboat will soon be crushed, Havel confirmed.

“It was in used condition and had some miles,” Casimir said. “But the engine worked and it was seaworthy.”

There’s a difference between “floating” and “seaworthy,” Havel says. Casimir’s boat was one of a dozen that went adrift during the windstorm on Jan. 19.

Havel decided to confiscate the vessel on Jan. 24, when he saw a social media post from another anchor-out saying Casimir was in trouble and needed to get off his boat due to a vertical crack in it. In addition, Havel contradicted Casimir, saying the engine wasn’t functional, although he says he never attempted to start it.

On Monday, I went to see the boat, which is on its side at the Army Corps of Engineers. Havel pointed out areas that appeared worn, including rusted rigging and frayed ropes. He also showed me a photo, taken before the boat was hoisted out of the water by a forklift, of the crack on the portside of the boat.

“I couldn’t let the boat sink or hurt or kill someone out in the anchorage,” Havel said. “Up to that point, I had not removed any occupied vessels. I knew it was occupied, but there was a big storm coming.”

Casimir is furious. He says his operable boat is now gone and so are his personal belongings.

“Everything was destroyed,” he said. “I only have the clothes on my back. Havel is a terrorist.”

Havel called the boat “marine debris.”

Casimir called it home. And he much preferred it over the tent he’s now occupying.

The tent city poses challenges for the City of Sausalito. While some Sausalito residents are sympathetic to the plight of the unhoused, many want the city to oust the campers. A thread about the encampment on the social media site Nextdoor has more than 340 comments.

“I don’t live here and pay outrageous property taxes to have a tent city a couple blocks away,” a Sausalito resident said on Nextdoor.

Sausalito is long on rhetoric and short on specifics regarding a plan for the encampment.

“Our priority remains finding alternate and appropriate shelter through Marin County Health and Human Services for the individuals who are homeless,” Hoffman said in an email. “Sausalito’s commitment is to the health, safety and welfare of everyone in our community.  An encampment is not a long-term solution.”

I recommend Sausalito check in with Novato, which has been working with Marin County for about 10 months on a remedy for their homeless encampment in Lee Gerner Park. So far, no permanent solution has been found. About 20 people live in the park, where Novato has supplied bathroom and handwashing facilities.

The Sausalito encampment lacks bathrooms, except for the nearby Dunphy Park restrooms that are only open from sunrise to sunset. A video posted on Facebook by a camper suggests human waste is dumped into the Bay after hours. Of course. Where else could they be expected to put it?

The current setup fails to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for homeless encampments during Covid-19, which instructs local governments to provide nearby restrooms and ensure they are functional, stocked and remain open 24 hours per day.

Sausalito should allow the people in the tent city to live in a dignified manner, especially since they’re probably there for the long haul. In Martin v. Boise, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city is unable to offer them a suitable alternative shelter option.

In the meantime, Havel says Marin County recently received funding for two new social workers in Southern Marin. Now, if the county could only give them the main resource necessary to do their jobs: available housing.

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