After an unexplained three-month delay, Sausalito city officials are making good on a promise to relocate residents of a city-sanctioned homeless encampment from a field contaminated with feces.
On Monday night, workers delivered platforms and tents to the tennis courts at Marinship Park, just steps away from the tainted field. A phased move-in is planned. One camper even spent an inaugural night in a new tent on the tennis court.
While the homeless camp residents appreciate moving off the field, they remain puzzled why city officials knowingly left them living in tents on tainted soil for so long. After all, the campers provided the city with a report on Nov. 1, from a state-certified laboratory, which revealed the foul-smelling muck bubbling up from the ground in Marinship Park contained extremely high levels of fecal material.
Then-mayor Jill Hoffman denied the issue for a couple of weeks. However, on Nov. 17, the city’s outside counsel, Arthur Friedman, finally admitted that the city’s testing showed fecal coliform levels inside the encampment area are significantly higher than outside the encampment. Two days later, the city announced in a newsletter that the tennis courts at Marinship Park were being prepared to serve as a “transitional overnight sleeping area,” due to campers’ concerns regarding the condition of the encampment after recent storms, though the article failed to mention the fouled field.
The city couldn’t hide the fecal fiasco for long. The Sausalito Homeless Union and the city are embroiled in litigation and the Union reported the situation to a federal judge overseeing the case. In a court document filed on Nov. 30, Friedman accused the campers of sabotaging the nearby bathrooms to cause the contamination. It’s part of a plot devised by the campers to allow them to move back to their previous encampment near Dunphy Park, according to Friedman.
Not so, says Robbie Powelson, president of the Marin Homeless Union. Sabotaging the bathroom would have harmed the whole encampment. In addition, the homeless residents had no master plan about moving back to the old site.
“We report people to the police when people vandalize the bathrooms,” Powelson said. “When we observe that happening, we try to stop them. There are some people who have serious mental health issues – that’s a small percentage of the camp who have a big impact on the camp. I have a videotape of a woman, who has serious mental health problems, throwing things, threatening people and vandalizing. The police took no action; they are not enforcing laws that would help prevent this behavior.”
Regardless of what caused the contamination, the city had a duty of care and knew they couldn’t leave the campers on polluted ground. During a federal court hearing on Dec. 9, Friedman said the city was prepared to start moving the approximately 45 campers onto the tennis courts the following day. Friedman emphasized that a storm was predicted for the weekend, making the move imperative. U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen granted the City’s request to relocate the encampment to the tennis courts.
However, the city didn’t move the camp on Dec. 10. In fact, the tennis courts remained locked until earlier this week.
In an interview with the Pacific Sun last week, newly elected Sausalito Mayor Janelle Kellman said the move was postponed due to recent rains causing discoloration of the wood platforms placed on the tennis courts to elevate and secure the tents. Kellman said the city would provide new platforms made of a more durable and weather resistant material.
With the delivery of platforms and new tents on Monday evening, Kellman made good on her promise. Yet, her explanation of the delayed move is confusing since the wood platforms were built and installed in the tennis courts at least seven weeks ago, but the campers were not permitted to move into the tennis courts even before the discoloration occurred.
What Kellman refers to as discoloration on the wood was mold. An architect accompanied me to the encampment two weeks ago to verify my observation. It’s not surprising that untreated wood left outside during the rain would result in mold growth. Last week, the city removed the platforms.
Kellman did not respond to follow-up questions about why the campers weren’t moved into the tennis courts during the last seven weeks, after the wood platforms were installed. Ditto for a question regarding why the untreated wood platforms weren’t covered, especially during the rainy season.
Keeping the campers on the field laced with fecal material for three months was bad enough, but the city added insult to injury when it canceled the twice weekly mobile showers. Kellman said the showers were temporarily suspended in December when the encampment area was expanded to the sidewalk and half of the parking lot, which is where the mobile showers were set up. Since Dec. 25, the city arranged for access to shower facilities during specified weekend hours at the Sausalito Fitness Club, just under a mile from the encampment.
Powelson disputes Kellman’s dates, saying the last time the mobile showers came to the encampment was Nov. 12 and the showers at the Sausalito Fitness Club began in January. The campers were without access to showers for seven weeks, according to Powelson’s timeline.
It does appear that Kellman’s estimate of when the city canceled the mobile showers is off by at least two weeks. The city published a newsletter on Nov. 19 stating that earlier in the week, it closed off the sidewalk and half of the parking lot at Marinship Park to expand the transitional sleeping area.
Kellman expects all the campers to be living in new tents on the tennis courts by the end of January. Once the relocation is complete, the mobile showers will return. In addition, a safe cooking area and safe warming areas heated by “patio-type” propane heaters will be set up. Campers now build fires to keep warm.
The new mayor has other good news, too. The city is working to provide alternate housing for members of the encampment. Seven beds at the New Beginnings Center, a shelter in Novato, have been allocated to Sausalito campers. Last week, three campers used the beds.
“The city has also partnered with the county on a grant proposal to fund a program to accelerate housing solutions for those without shelter,” Kellman said. “I will have more to say about the grant proposal when appropriate.”
Housing, of course, is the solution to homelessness, but it’s expensive, and the county has a long waiting list for permanent supportive housing. Last month, at a Marin County Board of Supervisors’ meeting, then-mayor Hoffman said Sausalito has spent $1.3 million on the encampment, which includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and a six-month contract for $460,000 with Urban Alchemy, a San Francisco nonprofit that is managing the camp 24/7. The spending continues. The city council will vote on Tuesday, Jan. 25, on whether to allocate $50,000 for security on an as-needed basis.
“What has the city provided to homeless people for $1.3 million?” Anthony Prince, attorney for the Marin Homeless Union, said. “That’s a disgrace. The Marin County Civil Grand Jury ought to look into corruption.”
Some quick math shows that $1.3 million could have put every homeless person at the encampment into a motel room for 240 nights, at a daily rate of $120. Placing two campers in each room, the city could have housed the campers for 16 months. Instead, the city and the Sausalito Homeless Union continue their prolonged litigation about anti-camping ordinances passed by the city council and the mistreatment of homeless residents.
Whether Urban Alchemy is a good investment remains to be seen. There have already been complaints by the campers about the staff. A video shot last month shows a male Urban Alchemy employee calling a woman at the encampment “a bitch” and “a whore.” Kellman said the city is aware of the video and the man no longer works at the Sausalito camp.
In another case of abuse caught on video, a civilian employee of the Sausalito Police Department allegedly threw rocks at a female camper in September. Two police officers allegedly refused to take a report from the victim and a witness. One of those refusals is on video.
Last week, the District Attorney’s office declined to file charges against the civilian employee. However, the police department has launched an investigation into the incident.
“As a next step, I am authorizing an independent investigation into the incident, including the actions of two members of the Sausalito Police Department, and have asked Command Consulting & Investigations, a private Sonoma County firm, to conduct the inquiry,” Sausalito Police Chief John Rohrbacher said in a statement. “The part-time civilian employee remains on unpaid administrative leave.”
Perhaps under the new mayor’s watch, the issues at the encampment will finally be resolved. Maybe Kellman will even find a way to help the most vulnerable campers receive housing.
For the time being, Powelson is encouraged.
“It’s a good day,” Powelson said. “The city is finally moving us onto the tennis courts. We’re hoping things are more positive from here on out.”