Homeless Campers to Remain in Novato’s Lee Gerner Park For Now

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction earlier this week which allows homeless campers to remain in Lee Gerner Park in Novato. Both the City of Novato and the Novato Homeless Union stipulated to the terms of the preliminary injunction. Just who came out ahead depends on who you ask.

The brouhaha began around two years ago when the first campers pitched their tents in Lee Gerner Park, next to a creek and a public library. Novato officials and a vocal group of residents did not approve of the encampment. The City ended up allowing the campers to stay, based on Covid guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend “people who are living in encampments remain where they are.”

In June, the City Council reversed course by unanimously approving two restrictive anti-camping ordinances. Violations of the ordinances are punishable by criminal misdemeanor.

One ordinance prevents camping within 50 feet of “critical infrastructures” and streams. The city’s definition of critical infrastructure is broad, ranging from government buildings and hospitals to computer systems and electrical wires. The city’s ordinance also states that additional unlisted places may be off limits, leaving campers and even attorneys baffled about where it is legal to camp. The other ordinance permits camping only between the hours of 9pm and 7am.

The enforcement date of both ordinances was set for when the CDC revokes its Covid-19 guideline for homeless encampments to remain intact or Marin County reaches a 90% vaccination rate for residents 16 and older, whichever comes first.

In early July, the Marin Homeless Union and individual campers filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Novato. The campers are represented by pro bono attorney Anthony Prince of the California Homeless Union. Novato hired a California law firm specializing in representing local governments, Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley.

Federal Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers immediately issued a temporary restraining order barring the City from enforcing the two anti-camping ordinances.

Days before a court hearing scheduled for Oct. 20, the City of Novato and the homeless campers at Lee Gerner Park agreed to the terms of the preliminary injunction during settlement negotiations.

“The City came in like a lion, but then they folded on just about everything,” Prince, attorney for the Marin Homeless Union, said.

The preliminary injunction continues the ban on enforcing the two anti-camping ordinances citywide, although Marin recently reached the necessary 90% vaccination rate milestone for residents 12 and older. It also permits the homeless living at Lee Gerner Park to remain in their encampment.

City of Novato Manager Adam McGill said he couldn’t comment on the agreement due to the litigation, nor would he reveal the legal costs incurred by the City. However, the City did issue a press release with a headline stating the court allowed Novato to establish a temporary camp at Lee Gerner Park.

The headline is perplexing, considering the City always had the authority to allow an encampment to remain in the city park. In fact, it is precisely the request the campers have been making over the last year and a half, long before they filed the federal lawsuit against Novato.

Other stipulations were also hammered out:

  • The City will erect a five-foot privacy fence and one foot of lattice at the top.
  • No new campers are allowed to join the camp.
  • All campers must notify the City if they intend to leave the encampment for more than 30 days.
  • A Homeless Union representative may accompany the campers to any meetings with the City.
  • A code of conduct may be implemented by the City.
  • The City will provide storage space, new tents, handwashing stations, portable bathrooms and weekly mobile showers, trash collection, maintenance services and security services.
  • Services, such as housing outreach and healthcare coordination, will be offered by the City and the County of Marin.
  • The Novato police are prohibited from entering the encampment unless they are investigating a crime. Officers will no longer be permitted to offer outreach services.
  • Campers may accept donations of food, clothing and small essential personal items.

The preliminary injunction remains in effect until the CDC changes its guidelines for homeless encampments, or the parties settle the litigation, or the judge issues a new order, whichever comes first.

Jason Sarris, the president of the Novato Homeless Union and a camper at Lee Gerner Park, would like Novato officials and residents to consider the many successes of the encampment. It may help them to appreciate what the camp provides to people down on their luck.

“We’ve had about seven people from here move into stable environments,” Sarris said. “Two people got jobs and rented their own housing. Not to mention the caseworkers that drop people off here as a staging area while they await housing. It was safer for them to put the people at our camp than on the street. It lends credence to what this camp has provided for people. This camp is a sanctuary. It gives people time to get their lives straightened out.”

Nikki Silverstein
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