Judge Rules in Favor of Sausalito Homeless Encampment Residents

In a blow to the City of Sausalito and local NIMBYs, a federal court judge issued a preliminary injunction on Monday preventing the city from clearing the homeless encampment near Dunphy Park. In addition, the city must allow daytime camping.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen granted the preliminary injunction to the Sausalito/Marin County Chapter of the Homeless Union after hearing arguments from both parties last week. In his ruling, Chen wrote that without the injunction the campers are “likely to suffer irreparable injury” during the Covid-19 crisis, but the daytime camping ban will need to be revisited as the pandemic recedes.

The Homeless Union filed for the injunction last month, days after the city voted 4-1 on a resolution to relocate the homeless encampment to Marinship Park and ban daytime camping.  

The city responded to the legal filing by retaining outside counsel Arthur Friedman, a partner in the international law firm Sheppard Mullin, to represent them in the matter.

Anthony Prince, the attorney representing the local Homeless Union on a pro bono basis, focused the campers’ legal arguments on Covid-19 and frequently cited the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for homeless encampments during the pandemic.

The judge also referenced the guidelines in his ruling about the city’s ban on daytime camping, which required campers to break down their tents each morning and pitch them again in the evening.

The daytime camping ban could cause the campers to disperse into the community. Dispersal increases the risk of disease spread, according to the CDC.

The campers also claimed the city-mandated move to Marinship Park would be detrimental. The grassy field designated for the campers is directly adjacent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat-crushing facility, which the Homeless Union’s attorney said would expose them to “clouds of lead-based paint, dust and fiberglass.”

Though the judge wrote the Homeless Union’s evidence was “concededly thin,” he noted the city did not present evidence “demonstrating the environmental safety of the area.” The injunctive relief on the move to Marinship Park could be modified or dissolved if the city demonstrates there are no toxic risks at the site and the move can be accomplished safely, Chen wrote.

Chen visited Marinship Park and Dunphy Park prior to his ruling, which gave him the opportunity to verify assertions made by the Homeless Union and the city during the hearing. The city did not fare well.

Prince continually maintained the boat-crushing facility is located just feet away from the field designated for the campers’ tents. Friedman, the city’s attorney, said it was a hundred, or hundreds, of yards away. The city’s “assertion appears to be erroneous,” Chen wrote.

“Based on the Court’s own site visit, it is clear that the yard is directly on the opposite side of the chain-link fence at the end of the grassy field,” Chen wrote.

Another source of contention was the city’s stated concern over the lack of showers for the campers at Dunphy Park, while mobile showers visit Marinship Park twice a week. The Homeless Union said the mobile showers could be set up at Dunphy Park; however, the city claimed they could not be, because there isn’t any water or parking at the Dunphy site.

Chen found a hose bib at Dunphy Park, as well as parking spots for the mobile showers truck and trailer.

In addition to pointing out the city’s blunders, the judge also had sharp words for their intentions with the daytime camping ban.

“Defendants have not explained why they have chosen to take action that flies in the face of CDC guidance. The facts, as presented thus far, strongly suggest that Defendants, in enacting this ban, have done so in spite of, not in furtherance of, public health. There is a strong argument that Defendants have acted in reckless disregard for the campers’ health and safety,” Chen wrote.

Regarding the move to Marinship Park, the judge wrote that the Homeless Union’s arguments were not as strong as their opposition to the daytime camping ban; however, there is still a serious question as to whether the city acted in reckless disregard for the safety of the campers.

“It appears Defendants took no concrete steps to ensure the environment around the proposed site is safe from the boat crushing operation,” Chen wrote.

In an email, Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman declined to comment on the ruling or the city’s next steps.

Prince is pleased with the court’s decisions, although he acknowledges the injunction is temporary unless the local Homeless Union wins at a full-blown trial, or the city permanently acquiesces.

“My hope would be the city would realize they’re going in the wrong direction here,” Prince said. “They need to stop using the taxpayers’ money to fight homeless people and they need to stop going against the CDC guidelines.”

The city has indeed spent taxpayer dollars on their legal defense. Despite repeated attempts to obtain the amount spent to date, Hoffman refuses to disclose their legal costs.

“I am unable at this time to provide specific or breakout costs related to the Dunphy Park encampment,” Hoffman said in an email. “The city is tracking costs related to this issue and will provide that figure at a future date.”

The city’s law firm, Sheppard Mullin, ranks among the Global 100, the world’s 100 largest law firms by total revenue.

Ironically, Sheppard Mullin has won prestigious awards for its pro bono work on behalf of the homeless. The reason Friedman chose to represent a client with antithetical views on homelessness is unclear. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“I’m very disappointed in Sheppard Mullin,” Prince said. “It’s not unusual to represent a landlord and then represent a tenant; however, if you’re going to hold yourself out as a friend of the homeless, yet you go to bat for a municipality working against the homeless, that is an issue of integrity.”

Prince is not a corporate attorney. He is general counsel for the California Homeless Union, an organization of homeless people, which gives independent voice to its members. 

In Sausalito, Prince represents the Sausalito/Marin County Chapter of the Homeless Union and several of the individual campers. He said the mood at the encampment is positive after the court’s ruling.

“You can feel a big weight has been lifted off people’s shoulders right now,” said Robbie Powelson, an activist and resident of the Sausalito encampment. “At least until the next hearing.”

Nikki Silverstein
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