.Tent tension: San Rafael further restricts homeless camping

Part one of a two-part report. Read part two here.

The City of San Rafael is playing Whac-A-Mole with homeless encampments on public property. Unfortunately, it’s a zero-sum game, and everyone knows who ends up losing.

Anyone can participate. Check out the easy rules:

1.  Residents complain about the presence of an encampment because homeless people are scary to see and walk by.

2.  The city council votes to close the area to camping or severely restrict the number of campers.

3.  The police give notice to the homeless residents and clear the camp on the specified date.

4.  Displaced homeless people set up camp at a new location.

5.  Go back to step 1 and repeat.

On July 17, the San Rafael City Council unanimously approved an ordinance imposing limits on the size and number of campsites permitted in an area.

City officials say they crafted the new regulations in response to complaints about homeless encampments, including littering, human waste, noise and crime.

The ordinance, however, is not ready for prime time. Although overly specific and restrictive in many ways, it fails to delineate procedures for implementation and enforcement.

It’s disappointing the city missed the mark. San Rafael, more than any other city or town in Marin, tries to support its homeless residents.

The city has allocated millions of dollars to shelters and permanent supportive housing; the police department employs a licensed therapist to conduct mental health outreach on a full-time basis; and a mobile crisis intervention unit, SAFE, was launched this year.

Still, officials stress the ordinance is necessary, pointing to the Mahon Path camp, the source of most of the complaints lodged by residents. 

About 40 people occupy 33 tents on half of Mahon Path, which is in a commercially zoned area of central San Rafael. The encampment starts at the intersection of Lindaro Street and Anderson Avenue and ends at Lincoln Drive. The area measures about 540 feet in length and is sandwiched between a creek and a busy road.

The campers prefer to live in close quarters because there is safety in numbers. A homeless person is statistically far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator.

And yet, the new rules are designed to isolate the campers.

A group of homeless people camping together is limited to a site measuring 10 feet by 20 feet. A campsite for an individual can’t exceed 10 feet by 10 feet.

The kicker is that all campsites must maintain at least 200 feet of separation. That’s two-thirds the length of a football field.

Critics say the ordinance is placing homeless people at risk, especially while they’re sleeping.

Women and LGBTQ people are particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical assaults. Seniors may experience health emergencies. Will neighbors hear them calling for help?

I met with Chris Hess, San Rafael’s assistant director of community development, housing and homelessness, and City Councilmember Rachel Kertz to learn more about the regulations.

“The intent behind the ordinance is to reduce the large congregation of people, to provide a level of safety to the community,” Kertz said. “San Rafael is really committed to working with the homeless community.”

I’m sure Kertz is sincere, but neither she nor Hess provided an answer about where the displaced homeless people could go.

To calculate how many people will be forced to move, I had an architect survey the entire Mahon Path, including the portion that runs from Lincoln Drive to Francisco Boulevard West—where no tents are currently pitched.

Using the parameters in the ordinance, six campsites will fit on the two sections of the path, which is just over 1,100 feet in length. This spreads fewer campers across an area twice the size of the existing encampment.

The ordinance doesn’t specify how many people are permitted to live in the 200 square feet group sites; however, San Rafael Police Lt. Carl Huber shed some light on what the city is considering.

“There would be a total of possibly three people in each campsite,” Huber said. “We see a couple cohabitating in a tent and then an individual in another tent. That will allow a certain level of safety for people who want to camp together.”

Three people in six campsites, for a total of 18. Consequently, 22 of the 40 homeless campers must relocate.

Whac-A-Mole.

Some folks living on the Mahon Path moved there from Albert Park, which the city closed to camping in March. The Albert Park camp was established by homeless people displaced from the September closure of a city-sanctioned encampment under a freeway. And so it goes.

The residents complaining about the Mahon Path camp probably won’t like the practical answer about where those 22 homeless people might end up.

Brian, a camper on the Mahon Path, has a few ideas about where he will go if forced to move.

“I could pop up in a neighborhood,” Brian said. “Maybe next to one of the city council members’ houses.”

As Brian is aware, it’s perfectly legal for a homeless person to pitch a tent on public property near a residential home. Homeowners also seem to know the law.

During a special city council meeting held last week to discuss the ordinance, some homeowners demanded stronger restrictions that would ban camping close to residences.

Assistant city attorney Genevieve Coyle stated that she wouldn’t recommend a camping ban in residential neighborhoods because “it wouldn’t uphold constitutional scrutiny from a court.” Coyle referenced Martin v. Boise, a 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which allows homeless people to sleep on public property when a city can’t provide alternative shelter.

With homeless shelters in Marin County perpetually full, save for a bed or two turning over each week, San Rafael can’t provide shelter for most of its estimated 241 unsheltered residents.

Over the last few years, San Rafael has been whittling down the number of places where a homeless person may camp. Banned areas include all open space, two parks near downtown, city parking garages and public buildings and fences. The new ordinance also prohibits camping within 10 feet of public utility infrastructures and within 100 feet of playgrounds.

While the city’s ordinance establishes where the displaced homeless people can’t camp, it doesn’t address who may stay on the Mahon Path and who must go. 

Hess proposed “incentivizing” folks to leave the camp by bribing them with Safeway gift cards. Never mind that it’s exploitative to ask someone to give up a place to live and separate from their community for a few bucks. Unless Safeway offers housing, the campers will need far more than gift cards. 

The city would prefer the campers decide who should move, according to Huber. But none of the many homeless people I interviewed wants to be involved in the selection process that will oust more than half of them.

“You have to be able to cooperate,” Paul, a veteran, said. “Not everyone here is always coherent, and you have to be coherent to cooperate.”

Brian, 51, believes foisting the choice on the campers will create havoc, fear and possibly violence.

“You’ll have people trying to govern each other,” Brian said. “People already under duress will be put under more duress. It will be survival of the fittest—only the strongest will get to stay.”

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].

16 COMMENTS

  1. Whether addressing homelessness, housing inequities or rogue police brutality, your articles are always well researched, balanced, insightful, articulate and timely. You are a valuable local resource. The Pacific Sun and our community are fortunate to have you!

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  2. Thank you Nikki Silverstein for providing the true information about, and straight from, the unhoused residents whose conditions you write about. Government and mainstream media tend to disinform and refuse unhoused people a voice. I appreciate also your coverage of the oppression of unhoused folks by governments.

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  3. This is informative. Chris has been very available to address issues with this encampment and takes both sides into consideration when looking for solutions. The reality is that it is not safe for the children from Davidson to walk through here anymore, which many do after school. Unfortunately the area has completely deteriorated and will take a lot of effort to clean up. Camping is one thing. Setting fires, doing drugs all day and trashing the environment are another. Hope these folks land in a position to get in to permanent housing. Sad that sitting in the shadow of a prominent biotech company are citizens barely holding it together

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  4. This is part of what the lawsuit was about at Camp Compassion in Novato, they gave us two years the City of Novato spent over $100,000.00!to build a fenced area where people could camp, I remember asking our lawyer , what happens at the end of two years?, to which I got no reply, I know this is about San Rafael but a lawsuit is what’s going to happen, they can’t just keep herding the homeless around like cattle, and Marin will spend a lot of money fighting the lawsuit, and tie it up in court for as long as possible and you aren’t going to win with Safeway gift cards, it’s going to money to get people to leave , and not a stipend like they did in Sausalito, real cash money, and don’t ask the California Homeless Union for legal help because thier attorney is not a very good attorney.

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  5. Wow. We are a society. A sick one at that. Human beings sent away out of sight. Fear rules. I’m ashamed to be here.

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    • San Rafael government officials are playing Russian roulette with the health and safety of unhoused human beings. What they are trying to do and it appears they’re succeeding is there going to make homelessness a crime. I’m ashamed to say I’m an American after seeing and being a victim of the cold-hearted stance the County of Marin are taking to criminalize homelessness

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    • Hello Meg what it looks like is the City of San Rafael will make a human being choose between a safe place to sleep or a meal. A Safeway card this is a joke. Being homeless is not a crime for some of us it’s the only choice we have.

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    • So us the proof that drug addicts are committing crimes without consequences. So what you’re trying to say is that every homeless person is a drug addict and if they commit a crime it gets swept under the rug. Jason you are misinformed and sorry human being for this false statement you made.

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    • Jason ppl like you with ur judgemental opinions that get ppl into more situations.. NOT EVERYONE who is or has an addiction or whatever else u might want to assume is homeless lotsa folks lost jobs due to mental, physical or just couldn’t do it.. The fact the ppl like you assume everybody has an addiction is simply an untrue biased statement..PPL need to realize there is no cure for homeless there will always b a unhoused population everywhere in the world that’s just how it is human nature.. we need solutions money will have to b spent I was homeless I know what it is I know the stigma that comes with it! We the ppl need to b heard without persecution without judgement.. The funds r not allocated properly Mill st. I can’t believe they built Jonathan’s Place to take the place of Milk St. and they didn’t put parking for any of the residences, clients.. Mill St. had parking for tenants and staff I can’t believe the poor planning that went into that and the clients now have to sit on street corner in the public to smoke when Mill St. had a smoking area in the back fenced in protected,anybody can drive by and do whatever they want.. The shelter is supposed to b confidential. The way they spent that money is appalling. The ppl who planned Mill Stree prior to this disgrace called Jonathan’s place had the ppl who would b staying there on their minds u could tell by the accommodations of Mill Street prior there was parking a smoking area etc..

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    • It’s a matter of which came first, the chicken or the egg. When one finds themselves ‘down and out’ they have to do something to fill the time.

      It is a bit more complicated than that, but that parable will do for a start.

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      • it’s easy to judge those who don’t fix the shortsighted narrative of those who assume that suffering and displacement is a choice. try lack of affordable housing as one of the major reasons for this community’s existence . how about this, start advocating for affordable tiny homes for the 1121 homeless individuals in the San rafael area so they can regain a sense that they too matter in this world. #thehomelessmattertoo movement

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    • you’re lack of empathy for those who experience suffering and displacement diminishes their humanity and your own.

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  6. I am a Senior citizen in mid 70’s worked hard my whole life even received two written accomodations for saving human lives. My retirement &SS is at the mercy of the political party of the times if my landlord dies, or becomes uninterested in renting I hi
    am homeless because I do not have the income to pay the lease terms or rent they are asking today!

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