Without fanfare, the City of Novato and the Novato Homeless Union reached a settlement agreement last week, ending almost a year of litigation in federal court.
The agreement allows the city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Lee Gerner Park to remain for at least two more years and struck down restrictive language in a camping ordinance, which was the catalyst for the Homeless Union to file the lawsuit, Anthony Prince, attorney for the Homeless Union, said.
Prince provided details for other important aspects of the agreement, including the establishment of a city-run committee to work on housing and homelessness issues in Novato. Two members of the Homeless Union will serve on the committee, alongside city officials and community representatives.
While new people haven’t been permitted to move into the camp since October, under the agreement, homeless people will now be able to fill vacant spots. The encampment, which has the capacity for 18 people, offers homeless people some stability and a safe place to camp. Case managers can visit regularly and connect the campers with services.
The police may enter the camp only when performing law enforcement functions. If a problem arises, camp residents will be allowed to have a Homeless Union representative present during interactions with the city and its agents.
The camp will remain city-sanctioned, and Novato Mayor Eric Lucan said the city estimates spending $200,000 to $300,000 annually for services such as port-a-potties, mobile showers and janitors.
The city and community are “mostly pleased” with the outcome of the settlement, Lucan said. The goal now is to house the homeless folks in the camp. Five people living in Lee Gerner Park have been housed since the camp was established.
“At a high level, it’s very clear that we need more housing options for the many people that are unhoused,” Lucan said. “There’s a real need out there, and it got compounded by COVID. Homelessness is a complicated issue for a lot of cities and it’s ongoing.”
The Novato Homeless Union is also happy with the settlement, according to Jason Sarris, the organization’s president. Sarris, who received housing last month after a dozen years of living on the street, was the first homeless person to pitch a tent in Lee Gerner Park in November 2019. Others soon followed, despite protests by some community members.
“It wasn’t planned or staged—it was a way for me to sleep without being criminalized,” Sarris said, referring to Martin v. Boise, a 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which allows homeless people to sleep on public property unless a city can provide them with an appropriate alternative shelter option.
The city is still bound by Martin v. Boise, Prince said, but it can make reasonable restrictions on where homeless people are permitted to camp. Under the agreement, the city will remove a laundry list of places where camping isn’t permitted, which was included in the city ordinance that launched the legal battle.
However, the restrictions in the ordinance remain unchanged, according to Lucan. No camping is permitted within 50 feet of critical infrastructure.
Rather than focusing on the restrictions, Sarris is looking forward to serving on the new housing and homelessness committee and helping people in the camp. Sarris aims to ensure all the folks currently in the camp, and those who will live there over the next two years, are connected to services and eventually housing.
“It’s not just something you check off your list,” Lucan said. “We have to continue to work to find housing and the support that people need.”