Unless community activist Jason Sarris brought up the topic, it would be impossible to tell he spent the last dozen years living on the streets.
Sarris was a typical kid who grew up in a nice Novato family. After high school, he stayed in the city he loves and built a good life.
He worked in the family business, got married and had two children by age 34.
Then came the divorce.
It devastated Sarris, who was 36 at the time. Meth entered the picture, and soon he began using the powerful drug daily to escape his heartbreak and anger.
He quit working. He quit his kids.
“I bottomed out,” Sarris said. “Eventually, I ran out of money and lost my place. I think I was about 40 when I started couch surfing and living in my car.”
It took two more years until he ended up completely homeless. That lasted for the next decade.
At 51, the same age his father was when he died of a brain tumor, Sarris gave up meth—cold turkey.
“I knew how much my dad wanted to live, and I thought ‘what am I doing,’” Sarris said. “Health wise, I wasn’t doing good. Mentally, I wasn’t doing good.”
In part, he credits his fortitude to kick meth, a highly addictive stimulant, to the stability of living in a Novato homeless encampment. Until late 2019, Sarris spent his time on the move, chased away from place after place by the police. Then he started camping at Lee Gerner Park in downtown Novato.
There were plenty of motivations for Sarris to settle in the park. First, he knew Martin v Boise, a 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that allows homeless people to sleep outside on public property unless a city provides them with adequate shelter, was in effect.
“I was tired of being pushed around, ticketed and arrested,” Sarris said. “I knew my rights, and this was a way for me to sleep without being criminalized.”
Initially, he camped in the park without a tent. By February 2020, he made a lean-to in a grove of trees next to the park’s creek. A couple of Sarris’ friends joined him. There were seven campers a month later. It wasn’t planned or staged, he says.
Many of Novato’s residents expressed their displeasure about people inhabiting a public park next to the library. The police weren’t thrilled either.
“Sergeant [Alan] Bates came by the camp and told me there wasn’t anything the police could do about this, but there will be a day when they can,” Sarris said. “The next day, the pandemic hit.”
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Soon after, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recommendation that cities leave homeless encampments in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
Still, the Novato police swept the encampment in July, telling campers the park was being closed for renovations. The city offered to pay for motel rooms for a week or to send campers from out of state back home to their families. Sarris, who was two months sober at the time, took the motel room.
However, Lee Gerner Park didn’t close. The only refurbishment Sarris saw was a cyclone fence installed around the creek. The porta-potty supplied by the city was removed.
“They lied to me,” Sarris said. “It was the only reason why I moved.”
In the following couple of weeks, Sarris learned that the Marin County District Attorney’s Office had just filed felony charges against him for a drug arrest from 11 months before. His beloved Chihuahua was attacked and killed by another dog, which he blamed on being forced to move again.
Sarris’ anger grew.
“I was a mess,” he said. “My sobriety was teetering.”
Desperately wanting a stable environment again and emboldened by the CDC guideline on keeping homeless encampments intact, Sarris decided in mid-August to begin camping again in Lee Gerner Park. Nine other homeless people joined him. This time, they were more organized.
Sarris started speaking to homeless people, activists and residents about the rights of those without a roof over their heads. First up was a campaign to get the bathroom returned to the park, which was successful.
Although Sarris wasn’t necessarily gung-ho about his new role, it became clear that he had a knack for leadership. Gradually, he became more comfortable advocating for homeless people.
By the time the Novato City Council passed two anti-camping ordinances in May 2021, Sarris was one-year sober and a seasoned leader. He contacted Anthony Prince, a Berkeley civil rights attorney, to assist the campers.
A Novato chapter of the Marin Homeless Union was formed, with Sarris serving as the president. With Sarris’ help, Prince quickly filed a federal lawsuit against Novato, and a temporary restraining order was granted that kept the city from closing the camp.
In the meantime, others began noticing Sarris’ work. He was invited to serve on the county’s Homeless Policy Steering Committee.
When he went to Legal Aid of Marin for help with 14 citations totaling almost $5,000, including tickets for jaywalking and other walking offenses, attorney Lucie Hollingsworth took note of his intelligence and public speaking skills. Sarris was quickly enlisted to testify before a state legislative hearing in favor of the Freedom to Walk Act, a bill decriminalizing jaywalking, an offense that disproportionately targets homeless people and people of color.
Even the DA’s office took Sarris’ accomplishments into consideration. In November 2021, his felony drug charges were reduced to a single misdemeanor and he received probation.
Sarris enjoyed many successes this year. In March, he threw his hat in the ring for the Marin County Board of Supervisors race in District 5. He participated in every forum held before the election, keeping the county’s homelessness issue in front of voters. Although Sarris didn’t win, he says he’s proud of the clean, positive campaign he ran.
Novato and the homeless union reached a settlement in July, and the encampment will remain open for at least two more years.
That same month, Sarris received a Section 8 housing voucher and is now living alone in an apartment in San Rafael.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Freedom to Walk Act in September. Last month, the New York Times prominently featured Sarris in an article about the law and why it was passed.
Today, Sarris, 53, continues his work on behalf of homeless people. His apartment is filled with coats he collected and will distribute to the community for the winter.
More leaders have come knocking on his door to invite him to serve on committees. He just accepted a position on Marin County’s Lived Experience Advisory Board, which assists in homelessness and housing policy making.
Sarris is also rebuilding his relationship with his children and the rest of his family. The process is slow, and he feels tremendous guilt about the years lost, but it’s going well.
“I’m feeling very much at home right now,” Sarris said. “I’m extremely grateful to have a chance to be inside and work on myself. It was time for me to get off the street, and I’m definitely looking forward to doing some good things in the future.”