Novato Curtails Homeless Camping

New laws leave homeless with "no options," says one encampment resident

After a year of relative stability during the pandemic, residents of a Novato homeless encampment will soon face eviction and criminal penalties due to new ordinances severely curtailing camping on public property.

The Novato City Council unanimously passed two ordinances last week seemingly in response to about 25 homeless people living in an encampment in Lee Gerner Park. Public outcry about the camp was loud and fierce at council meetings during the past year, but the city was reluctant to act due to Covid-19.

The camp represents only a portion of the people who will be impacted by the new ordinances. The most recent count, conducted in January 2019, estimated that 310 people in Novato were experiencing homelessness. Many suspect the number of homeless people increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ordinances prevent camping within 50 feet of “critical infrastructures” and bodies of water. While safeguarding critical infrastructure and water sounds mighty important, it appears Novato believes almost every square foot of the city qualifies for protection.

The list includes, but isn’t limited to, government buildings, schools, fire stations, police stations, hospitals, antennas, bridges, roads, train tracks, drainage systems, levees, computer networks, public utilities, electrical wires, natural gas pipes, telecommunication centers and water sources.

In addition, camping is only permitted between the hours of 9pm  and 7am. Violations of the ordinances are punishable as a misdemeanor.

The Lee Gerner Park encampment, dubbed Camp Compassion by its residents, is occupied 24/7 and borders a public library and a creek, all verboten according to the ordinances. The campers, who would prefer to stay together, clearly need to move.

Perhaps they could relocate the camp to Novato open space? Nope. The city council covered that by prohibiting camping in a wildfire risk area.

Jason Sarris, the encampment’s de facto leader, fears the city’s new restrictions leave no place for the homeless to lawfully camp, either in a group or individually. The daytime camping ban also presents problems. Several of the campers are disabled, including one who is wheelchair bound. They will have difficulty pitching and striking their tents daily.

“They’re basically giving us no options,” Sarris said.

An outspoken Novato resident, Nancy Abruzzo, has lobbied for months to shut down the encampment, claiming crime and the environment as her chief concerns. Still, she was surprised by the content of the ordinances.

“I was expecting the city council to suggest an alternative location for the residents which might have included tiny homes or safe sleeping areas,” Abruzzo said.

Novato City Manager Adam McGill said in an email to the Pacific Sun that the city is discussing options such as safe camping areas, shelter beds and permanent housing, yet no plans for these alternatives were mentioned during the city council meeting. In the same email, McGill refused to identify any specific locations where the homeless could camp until these potential options become a reality.

“Anywhere it’s not illegal would be legal,” McGill said.

Though McGill’s explanation is not particularly helpful to those trying to find a new place to sleep, it does serve to underscore the city’s attitude towards its homeless residents. Instead of enacting sweeping anti-camping ordinances, the city could have balanced the demands of its housed and unhoused residents by designating a sanctioned encampment in an area less visible than Lee Gerner Park.

The nearby City of Sausalito, experiencing a similar predicament, offered their campers an alternate site. A federal court judge recently signed off on the relocation of the Sausalito encampment.

It remains to be seen whether a federal court will agree with Novato’s course of action. The residents of Lee Gerner Park plan to challenge the legality of the ordinances.

Martin v. Boise, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, affirmed people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city cannot offer them an adequate shelter option. Marin County has a shortage of available beds for the homeless.

“A violation of the Novato ordinances is a misdemeanor, and that clearly violates Martin v. Boise,” Legal Aid of Marin Attorney Lucie Hollingsworth said. “There is case law, apart from Boise, that further defines why these ordinances are invalid. The city council is giving unhoused residents no choice but to leave the City of Novato or face a criminal misdemeanor.”

McGill stands behind the legality of the ordinances and says the city is prepared to enforce the new laws.

“The City Attorney’s office carefully crafted these ordinances and is confident they are fully compliant with the case law established in Martin v. Boise and other related legal precedents,” McGill said.

Encampment residents are frustrated and confused. Not only are they unsure of where they’ll be allowed to sleep within Novato city limits, they also don’t know when they’ll be evicted from Lee Gerner Park.

The ordinances go into effect July 9, but the city won’t begin enforcement until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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.

As the city awaits the green light from the CDC or the county, Lee Gerner Park residents are bracing for the loss of their security and community. Over the past year, they helped care for each other and shared donated resources, including food and camping equipment. Case workers knew where to find their clients and were able to provide them with consistent services, tasks which will become more onerous when the homeless are forced to disperse from the encampment.

“The people in our camp have gone forward in life,” Sarris said. “When you’re told to move every two weeks, you can’t get a leg up.”

Ironically, at the same meeting where the Novato city council passed the ordinances restricting camping, they also voted unanimously to spend up to $240,000 to hire new case workers for the homeless. The money will go into a pool of funds from Marin municipalities and the aim is to take advantage of federal dollars allocated for housing.

Even with Novato’s contribution to the county pool, no homeless person from the city is guaranteed a housing placement. The most vulnerable receive housing first, which leaves many Lee Gerner Park residents out in the cold.

Daniel Hobbs, 65, is able-bodied and likely won’t receive housing from the county anytime soon. Until he became homeless six months ago and moved into the encampment, he lived in a home in Novato’s Bahia neighborhood for 18 years. Although Hobbs prefers to stay in Novato, he doesn’t want to run afoul of the law and acknowledges he may have to leave when the city begins enforcing the camping ordinances.

The Lee Gerner Park campers experienced a brief respite from their nomadic life during the pandemic. They’ll soon be on the road again, in search of places to sleep where they won’t be rousted on a regular basis and criminalized.

“Most of us who are homeless have had some bad things happen or made some bad choices,” Hobbs said. “We’re just normal people who have gotten into a challenging situation.”

Nikki Silverstein
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