Making Community: Camp Compassion’s resident artists

An encampment of unsheltered persons in Lee Gerner Park in West Novato, the colloquially named Camp Compassion has come to prominence in the same way a great many entities do nowadays—amid controversy.

The unhoused began gathering in the park around 2019, but the camp grew in size over the course of 2020 as the events of that year—fires, a pandemic and economic turmoil—took their toll on the community at large.

Since becoming large enough to warrant notice, it’s attracted outcries from residents and neighboring businesses alike. By early May of this year, they were calling for its relocation.

Kelly Smith, executive director of the Novato Farmers Market, also noticed Camp Compassion, however, and was moved by what she saw. After reaching out to Jason Sarris, a resident of the camp and its lead advocate, she made space for Camp Compassion’s myriad artists and makers at the weekly Tuesday market. There, residents are able to represent themselves and sell art to a public that often misunderstands them.

Among the offerings are succulents, paintings, custom upholstered pet beds and performances from a guitarist trained at the Juilliard School of music.

Predictably, Camp Compassion isn’t without its critics.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, Nancy Abruzzo, a Novato resident who is protesting the camp, passed out flyers printed in the form of a parody real estate listing. The flyers mocked the encampment as “carefree, affordable living in highly desirable Lee Gerner Park on the shores of Novato creek.”

In addition to these displays, camp residents have also suffered verbal assaults, online harassment, skunk spray and have even had their tents slashed amid attempts to relocate, states Sarris, who recognizes the difficulty they face.

“I understand why people don’t want us in the park, too,” he says. “I was top of my [own] field. Wife. Kids. You know, I’ve been on both sides. And you know what it does, it makes for a well-rounded Jason.”

“How do you promote awareness?” he asks. “That’s really difficult. And so it hasn’t always looked pretty, but what we try to do is say, “Hey, we’re real people. We’re not bad. We’re just trying to live our lives, and at least have basic human rights.’”

What’s being protested as an eyesore and a hazard doubles as a home to many who find themselves without options, lending the camp its name. “Everyone should have a place to go where they don’t feel like they’re out of place,” Sarris says. “And that’s when I thought, “Well, that’s Compassion.’”

This week, the Novato’s City Council will consider an ordinance and resolution that would limit where encampments are allowed in public areas and ban encampments from 7am to 9pm daily.

Despite its critics, Sarris has found supporters among the residents of Novato and has found the camp’s namesake virtue to inspire local generosity.

“I started reaching out to the community,” Sarris says, “and people were donating stuff. … We had people bringing day-old bread, people that are bringing stuff that would normally be thrown away just to make sure we got it. Things that were on the fringe dates, gonna go bad. Then the weather started getting bad, and we needed tents and sleeping bags—and people were bringing like 10 sleeping bags at a time! Dozens of tarps. Thanksgiving, we had so many turkeys—I was calling families that were on the fringe of being homeless, that are just scraping by, and [we were] giving them turkey dinners.”

Sarris is proud of what his community has accomplished.

“I’m really proud that we’ve been able to do this,” he says. “We’re not endorsed by the City at all. So, for us to go through the vigilante stuff, the severe push-back … and to persevere through all that, it’s not easy. It’s so hard to manage 25, 30 people that have all been kicked down in life. … People are up, people are down, they’re all around. There’s yelling, there’s screaming and to get through all of that and still somewhat function, it tickles me.” He adds, “I mean, it’s incredible.”

The Novato Farmers Market runs Tuesdays 4–8pm and is located on 7th Street—between Grant Avenue and Novato Boulevard—in Novato.

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