.Formerly homeless, Jason Sarris becomes a valued community activist

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.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected]

13 COMMENTS

  1. This man is such an inspiration! But ironically he’s taken a lot of abuse from people who don’t understand addiction or our current economy. Jason gives as good as he gets and has elevated the issue of homelessness in Marin to benefit others in his same situation.
    A true leader indeed.

  2. Such a heartwarming story
    Of perseverance
    Of resilience
    Rising out of despair
    Thank you for capturing
    To your future Jason

  3. “…he didn’t win….” is an obtuse way of saying he got less than 5% of the votes cast in a race where every voter got two votes — meaning that the vote percentages totaled 200%. His support among the voting citizenry is next to nonexistent.
    Overall, he seeks to enable others pursuing the meth-fueled lifestyle in which he threw away 15 years of his life. Not just sad, but truly damaging to the victims of addiction who need compulsory treatment and damaging to society a a whole.

    • Mr. White,
      Two votes per person. Very concerning, indeed. Sounds like you might need to file a complaint with the Secretary of State.
      Somehow, I think you missed the point and spirit of the article. Mr. Sarris didn’t care about votes, he cares about working to resolve an important humanitarian crisis in Marin – homelessness.
      I’m afraid you have confused the term “damaging “with “uplifting.” Serving on committees to compassionately address homelessness and providing warm coats to people living on the streets are uplifting measures, not damaging.
      Best,
      Nikki

    • First of all, addiction is an illness and it is very difficult to quit a drug not only cold turkey, but to do so while homeless. Jason is a good person who has done so much for others and he has completely turned his life around for the better. I don’t know how you can respond in such a negative and hateful way, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    • This story only tells one side. Its totally bias.
      He was offered good paying jobs and interviews while in the camp, which he refused.
      I also wonder what Jason considers being sober. I know a few homeless people who interacted with him since he got “sober” and they’ve said he still partakes in smoke and drink.

      • …and still, look at him now!!!
        People CAN succeed and do good in the world even with vices despite your experiences Craigory.

  4. Walter White shame on you. Getting off methamphetamine is one of the hardest things one can do. To then pull yourself up from homelessness and elevating other in your situation while you do it is praiseworthy. Too bad you can’t see that. I pity you. You must lead a pretty barren, colorless life.

  5. @Walter White, addiction is not a life style. It is an illness. Would you call suffering from cancer a life style? I do not see anything about enabling folks here. In fact, I see the opposite. Jason was able to transform his suffering into healing and collective actions for health and wellness. Our worst mistakes and days should not define us. I don’t want mine to define me and I’d be surprised if you want yours to define you.

  6. Jason is on a journey, and most definately has to take it one day at a time. Meth is heavy duty…and it is very, very early in his sobriety. Having said that…while the article is not intended (I suppose) to be in depth…what i find interesting is that while Jason has had time to serve on many commissions…unless these are paid gigs we still don’t see where he has been able to reenter the work force and start the road to becoming self supporting…or even a comment on his long term plans and goals. Hopng that he can reconnect on a positive level with his children…and truly find some stability and recovery as he “re” enters society as a productive citizen both as a community member and an advocate for his brothers/sisters who need a helping had.

  7. Craig you are drowning in your toxic soup of hate for the homeless, particularly Jason sarris for some obscure reason. You have NO IDEA what Jason has been offered or not offered or by whom. You also know nothing about what he has turned down, if anything, or accepted. No, but now you spread that ignorance of the facts surrounding this man and his journey beyond just the parochial Novato Facebook pages and into a county wide publication.
    You scream to be called out not only on your bias but your cruelty. Have you ever met Mr. Sarris? I think not. How do you come upon your misinformation? Certainly nobody in a position to know what he has or has not been offered or what he has accepted or not would deign to engage you in any discussion of Jason Sarris’ private life or information.
    How you can sit in your moth eaten BarcaLounger and clack away with judgement against a person who has lifted himself out of homelessness and drug addiction is beyond vile.
    Maybe you should play bingo at the Catholic Church, Craig and give yourself something to do besides wallow in judgementalism and hate toward someone you know little about.

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