.Sausalito Admits Fecal Contamination at Homeless Encampment

After weeks of denials, the City of Sausalito finally admitted on Wednesday that the soil at the city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Marinship Park is contaminated with concerning levels of fecal matter.

Fecal matter can spread  illnesses, including hepatitis A, Salmonellosis and respiratory infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The fecal concerns started late last month. After a powerful atmospheric river storm ended on Oct. 25,  residents of the encampment noticed a foul-smelling liquid bubbling up from the soil. They reported the issue to Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit organization hired by Sausalito to monitor the camp, Robbie Powelson, camp resident and president of the Marin Homeless Union, said.

The city inspected the public bathrooms at Marinship Park on Oct. 27 and found no issues, according to Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman.

Powelson confirms that Patrick Guasco, Sausalito’s sewer system coordinator, examined the manhole outside of the camp.

“I let Patrick Guasco know about the stuff bubbling up and he said it was highly unlikely that it’s sewage,” Powelson said. “Drainage out of the bathroom goes straight into the street, not into the field, was what he told me.”

Troubled by potential health consequences, the campers took matters into their own hands. The day after Guasco’s visit, they hired Brelje and Race Laboratories to test a sample of water collected from a puddle inside the homeless encampment. The grim results from the water analysis, which indicated an extremely high fecal count, came back on Nov. 1.

Anthony Prince, attorney for the Sausalito Homeless Union, said he immediately forwarded a copy of the lab report to Sausalito’s outside counsel Arthur Friedman of Sheppard Mullin.

Powelson said he personally showed the fecal report to Sausalito City Manager Chris Zapata on Nov. 3, when Zapata  visited Marinship Park. 

In addition, Powelson sent the report to Guasco on Nov. 8. Guasco responded to Powelson, advising Powelson to obtain a lab analysis for enterococcus, a bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals. When the bacteria exists in soil and water, it indicates fecal matter is present. Enterococci are opportunistic pathogens that cause millions of infections annually, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information

The City of Sausalito and the Sausalito Homeless Union have been embroiled in a lawsuit regarding the city’s treatment of its homeless population since February. The parties, now participating in settlement negotiations, discussed the fecal issue on Nov. 8 at a settlement conference in front of Judge Robert Illman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Yet, on Nov. 8, Hoffman denied the city was aware of the fecal report.

“The City of Sausalito has no evidence or data indicating any issues concerning fecal matter in the water or the soil and no such evidence or data has been presented to the City,” Hoffman wrote in an email to the Pacific Sun.

The mayor’s denial mystified Powelson and Prince. They insist Friedman and at least two Sausalito staff members, including the city manager and the sewer system coordinator, knew about the lab report showing excessive levels of fecal matter in the water sample.

“I guess the mayor is having some communication issues with Friedman and Zapata,” Powelson said.

The campers had another lab analysis conducted on Nov. 8 by Brelje and Race Laboratories, this time to test for fecal matter and the enterococcus bacteria. The results returned on Nov. 11, indicated an extremely high fecal and enterococcus count. Prince said he immediately forwarded the report to Friedman.

Residents of the homeless camp are experiencing skin infections with open sores and throat infections. One woman has an abscess inside her mouth. Several campers have been treated at the hospital and prescribed antibiotics for bacterial infections. While they can’t directly correlate their maladies to the contamination at Marinship Park, the timing of the illnesses has caused apprehension throughout the camp.

Four campers, worried about the health risks, left Marinship Park for higher ground, and pitched tents on a very visible plot of land next to Dunphy Park in downtown Sausalito. The encampment was previously located there; however, earlier this year a federal judge allowed the city to move the campers to Marinship Park. Ironically, the city said Marinship Park was safer because it has bathrooms on site and mobile showers visit twice a week.

Finally, Sausalito had their own lab analysis done, testing soil samples from areas inside and outside of the camp. Friedman conveyed the results to Prince on Wednesday: fecal coliform levels inside the encampment area are significantly higher than outside the encampment.

On Wednesday, the same day Sausalito’s attorney admitted to the fecal contamination in Marinship Park, the city locked a gate to keep the relocated campers off the land near Dunphy Park and did not allow them to retrieve their tents. City workers told the campers they would be trespassing if they entered the property. The city even hired a security guard. 

Apparently, city officials had no qualms about sending the four campers back to sleep in contaminated Marinship Park. Instead, on Wednesday, four campers pitched tents on the grass in front of Sausalito City Hall. They remained at city hall on Thursday. 

Prince says forcing people to sleep in feces is par for the course with the way Sausalito has managed its homeless encampment, from moving it to Marinship Park, which is known to be low-lying and flood-prone, to leaving the campers to fend for themselves outdoors during the bomb cyclone storm that leveled the camp in late October.

“The main thing is the city failed to take action for three weeks,” Prince said. “They finally had to admit through their own testing that they recognize the need to get people out of there.”

On Thursday, city staff went to Marinship Park to move the campers from the contaminated field to half of a small parking lot a few yards away from the encampment. With approximately 40 campers, and the camping area they have been given, the city is likely violating the Centers for Disease Control and Protection Covid-19 guidelines recommending that public agencies  provide at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual. The city is now preparing the tennis courts to accommodate the campers, which is located next to the contaminated area.

The campers want to return to the site of the former downtown encampment near Dunphy Park. Outspoken Sausalito residents had objected to that location because it was very visible. Marinship Park, located in an area zoned for industrial and maritime businesses, is out of sight from tourists and most residents.

Prince said the city assumed a duty of care by clearing the original encampment and requiring all homeless people to stay in the city-sanctioned camp in Marinship Park.

The City of Sausalito reported it spent more than $675,000 on homelessness, from Jan. 1 through Oct. 14. Legal fees, coming in at $252,000 are the largest expense. Other expenses seem questionable, such as $1,267 for food for the police, including, of course, donuts. The city charging an expense of almost $30,000 to remove a soil stockpile at Dunphy Park seems like creative accounting, as the soil was from the park renovation, which occurred prior to the arrival of the homeless campers.

“I think it’s time for the leaders and the people of Sausalito to decide whether they want to continue spending hundreds of thousands of dollars needlessly to fight a group of homeless people,” Prince said. “Or are they going to actually get down to the business of providing real housing?”

The court saga continues on Dec. 9, when a federal judge will hear a motion to find the city in contempt for failing to keep the campers safe.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].
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