Novato Homeless Activists Push for 9.2-acre Land Trust

As cars drove by Novato City Hall on Jan. 11, horns blared in support of the homeless people demonstrating in front of the municipal building. The protestors, who live at two tent encampments in Novato, objected to the dearth of housing for Marin’s homeless.

Marin County’s Homeless Coordinated Entry System allocates beds by prioritizing the most vulnerable people and veterans. However, due to the county’s shelter and housing shortage, a single adult in Marin experiencing homelessness who isn’t a veteran and doesn’t have serious health issues may wait indefinitely for temporary shelter, let alone permanent housing.

“Prior to the Coordinated Entry System, resources went to the luckiest people,” said Carrie Sager, a homelessness program coordinator with Marin Health and Human Services (Marin HHS). “The vulnerable weren’t getting the resources they needed. Now, it’s a federal requirement to assess people and prioritize based on objectives.”

Apparently, a handicapped 58-year-old homeless man wasn’t vulnerable enough to make the cut. A county caseworker dropped him off recently at the encampment in Novato’s Lee Gerner Park, where about 20 people live in tents. Other park residents provided him with a tent and a sleeping bag, as he lacked provisions of his own.

“We do not have a standard procedure of dropping clients at homeless encampments,” said Connie Moreno-Peraza, a division director with Marin HHS. “Each of these decisions are made with the client on a case-by-case basis.”

The data reflects the disparity in the number of people experiencing homelessness versus the number of beds available in the county. The picture is bleak.

During the 2019 Point-in-Time Count, a biennial estimate of local homeless populations, Marin County tallied a total of 1,034 individuals.

Sixty-eight percent of Marin’s homeless population remains unsheltered, according to a 2019 Marin HHS survey of homeless individuals. In typical times, that meant more than 700 people were left out in the cold. Unfortunately, with the pandemic raging, even fewer beds are available due to the necessary social-distancing measures.

“I will acknowledge we don’t have enough services and housing for everyone,” said Ashley Hart McIntyre, a homelessness policy analyst with Marin HHS. “There are not enough housing resources. I hear the frustration of those who badly need assistance.”

A small group of activists believe they have a partial solution to the county’s problem: establish a land trust and build a shared equity housing cooperative for up to 200 people on a 9.2-acre property located at 201 Sunset Dr. in Hamilton. They want to buy the city-owned land and use tiny homes to serve as temporary housing. Eventually, the historic Bachelor Officers’ Quarters would be renovated, and new buildings constructed, to provide permanent housing.

Activists Jackie Cutler, 56, Jason Sarris, 51, and Robbie Powelson, 26, all experiencing homelessness, say they are working with community groups to make their plan a reality. The trio, along with a few other unhoused individuals, began a tent and vehicle encampment on Dec. 18, at the very site they covet.

Then the City of Novato stepped in to curtail their activities.

On Dec. 22, city employees erected chain link fencing around the property and posted tow away signs, making it impossible for vehicles to continue parking on the property. According to Novato City Manager Adam McGill, the fencing is necessary to limit growth of the camp, because occupants were inviting people with vehicles from as far away as Santa Rosa to join them.

To emphasize the point, the city also served a 72-hour eviction notice to the occupants of Sunset Drive, which demanded they vacate the premises by Christmas Day. McGill says they have not yet enforced the eviction, as the city is still assessing its legal options.

Though overnight camping is illegal in Novato, the city’s hands may be tied. In Martin v. Boise, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city cannot offer them an alternative shelter option. 

The situation is further complicated by the city’s intention to put the Sunset Drive property on the market.

“That property has been in the process of being put up for sale for the last few months,” McGill said. “The preparations are nearly complete and it will soon be offered for sale. The city has an obligation to protect the property’s value, so that the residents of Novato have the greatest benefit upon sale of the property.” 

Not only does the City of Novato want the occupants off the Sunset Drive property, some Novato residents also don’t appreciate their presence. Social media posts lambast the campers and at least one vandal has destroyed their property on several occasions.

“Community backlash has been really bad,” Sarris said.

That’s putting it mildly. On Dec. 23, a tire on Cutler’s van was slashed. Tents were slashed on Christmas Eve. Five days later, Powelson was followed to his father’s home in Novato and his tire was slashed. Tents were again sliced on Jan. 30. Adding insult to injury, the vandal also sprayed a skunk-like scent inside the tents.

The campers installed a hidden surveillance camera to catch the culprit in action and they captured video of a masked man slashing tents on Jan. 3. Although the police received the video footage and issued a public notification, the man has yet to be identified.

Still, the activists are undeterred by the actions of the city and disgruntled members of the community. They continue with plans to purchase the property. In fact, they have attempted to communicate with McGill about their project, but so far, he has declined to speak with them.

“The property is valued at nearly $8 million,” McGill said. “If the sender of those emails can demonstrate, like any buyer would have to, that they have the financial means to purchase the property, then the city will meet with that potential buyer. Meeting with those clearly not capable of purchasing the property is not a productive use of my time.”

The activists maintain money is available to help them purchase the property. They say the federal government is putting more money into community housing and their group is building robust support from community groups.

“This has been done before,” Powelson said. “People in Oakland occupied a house and continued the occupation through eviction. Ultimately, they purchased the property.” 

With the Sunset Drive property going on the market in the near future, the clock is ticking for the activists to raise the necessary funds. Whether they succeed or not, it’s clear that the county must step up its game to care for our residents experiencing homelessness.

“Housing people in Marin one at a time isn’t going to cut it,” Sarris said. “A thousand people are homeless right now.”

Nikki Silverstein
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