No Solution in Sight as Sausalito Pushes to Move Encampment

Last Sunday, I stood in the Sausalito tent city on Richardson Bay talking with unhoused people about their plight and the uncertain future of their encampment. Not 100 yards away, happy couples gathered at the private Sausalito Cruising Club in Dunphy Park and danced to live big band music.

The two groups were so close, yet so far apart.

Residents have pressured local politicians to shut down the camp since December, when the first homeless man pitched his tent next to Dunphy Park in downtown Sausalito. Much to the City’s chagrin, approximately 40 unhoused people, some displaced anchor-outs, now live at the site.

The Sausalito City Council wants to close the visible encampment near Dunphy Park, and relocate it to the less-noticeable area of Marinship Park. However, the campers want to stay put.

Because a legal battle over the issue erupted earlier this year between the City and the recently organized Sausalito Homeless Union, it’s up to U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen to decide the fate of the encampment.

If Sausalito officials do successfully close the encampment next to Dunphy Park, they may be unhappy with the end result: a substantial increase in the number of homeless people throughout the City.

There is virtually no more room for additional tents in the area adjacent to Dunphy Park, which means the camp can’t continue to expand in its current location. Marinship Park is much larger and would provide ample space for the camp to grow.

Still, the City is persisting in pushing the move, and it looks like they may get their wish. Based on the questions Chen asked expert witnesses during an evidentiary hearing last Friday, the fate of the campers is likely a fait accompli. The smart money is on Chen ruling for the City, and allowing the closure of the current encampment and the move to Marinship Park.

“Marinship Park is going to be filled with campers from other parts of the county and the state,” said Anthony Prince, attorney for the Sausalito Homeless Union. “The pandemic has permanently altered the housing and employment status of millions of people. That camp is going to grow. There’s no question in my mind, they’re not going to be able to keep it small.”

Another issue is that the city can’t force the current campers to move to Marinship Park. The Sausalito Homeless Union maintains the Marinship Park location is contaminated from the adjacent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ boat crushing operation.

“Nobody from this camp is interested in going to Marinship,” said Robbie Powelson, a housing activist and sometime resident of the Sausalito camp.

Although many people experiencing homelessness prefer to stay in encampments due to safety concerns and camaraderie, it appears many Sausalito campers plan to disband. They could choose to disperse into different areas of the city, and they have the right to do so.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling in Martin v. Boise affirmed people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city is unable to offer them a suitable alternative shelter option.

The City of Sausalito issued a Notice to Vacate this week to a camper at City Hall. The eviction seems to fly in the face of Martin v. Boise, since not enough shelter or housing exists in Marin.

Right now, 16 people from the Sausalito encampment await temporary shelter or housing, according to Marin County Health and Human Services (HHS). They may be on hold for a long time because of a lack of all forms of housing.

 “Marin County does have in the range of 500 folks who have been assessed for and determined appropriate for permanent supportive housing, and they’re just waiting for an available bed,” said Ashley Hart McIntyre, a homelessness policy analyst with Marin HHS. “We need more housing overall and more money for support services.”

With permanent supportive housing, an assigned case manager visits the household regularly to assist with life skills, such as teaching the resident how to pay rent and grocery shop. Over time, most residents gain self-sufficiency. Other services may include connecting the resident with education, job programs and mental health treatment, depending upon their individual needs.

“Marin has roughly a 94% retention rate,” Hart McIntyre said. “We know how to end homelessness. There are 30 years’ worth of evidence-based practices and studies on what works. If you pour in enough money and political will, we can end homelessness.”

Perhaps help is on the way. Gov. Newsom announced last week a plan to allocate $12 billion to end California’s homelessness in five years. Whether it is enough money remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the unhoused people from the Sausalito camp are besieged on all fronts. The City wants to evict the campers from the place they call home and move them to a spot they believe is toxic. In addition, some residents have declared war on them.

Earlier this month, a group on the social media site Nextdoor learned that families live in the encampment. They encouraged everyone to contact Marin County Child and Family Services (CFS) and report the children in the camp are being abused.

A Sausalito man said the children are suffering psychological abuse because they are within earshot of other campers who he alleges scream obscenities and threats in the middle of the night.

Another neighbor suggested reporting that the children aren’t going to school. Ironically, the kids living in the encampment aren’t of school age.

“Homelessness by itself is not child abuse,” Hart McIntyre said. “CFS does not remove children from their families for being homeless. For emotional or psychological abuse to be found, there would need to be evidence that the behavior the child is subjected to is having a significant detrimental effect.”

Fortunately, the two families living in the encampment may be able to escape the animosity of their housed neighbors. One received a housing voucher and is now searching for an appropriate home. The other is on the list for permanent supportive housing.

Meanwhile, as everyone awaits the judge’s forthcoming decision about moving the encampment to Marinship Park, perhaps Sausalito politicians and residents should consider the consequences of achieving their goal. With the Covid-19 eviction moratorium ending on June 30, there is the potential for newly unhoused people to find their way to Marinship Park. And the current Sausalito campers may scatter to other public properties throughout the City.

I wonder what Nextdoor members will have to say about that.

Nikki Silverstein
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