Part one of a two-part report.
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.
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.”