.Three Marin Cities Take Differing Approaches to Homeless Encampments

Three cities in Marin County, San Rafael, Sausalito and Novato, all have a significant number of people living in homeless encampments. Each has chosen a different approach to contend with the homelessness issue in their community.

San Rafael says they have been a “leader in the county on addressing homelessness.” Sausalito maintains they treat their homeless residents with “care and compassion.” Novato asserts they are “proactively addressing homelessness.”

While all three cities recently passed laws restricting camping, San Rafael and Sausalito have provided fenced-in encampments for a portion of their homeless populations. Novato has failed to provide a designated area for its homeless population to camp and has also enacted the most restrictive camping bans.

Of the three municipalities, San Rafael seems to practice a kinder, gentler course of action with its homeless population. The police department employs a full-time mental health liaison, Lynn Murphy, a licensed clinician who is out on the street every day.

“I do outreach and engagement with people experiencing homelessness,” Murphy said. “I make it a point to know every person living outdoors.”

Approximately 50 people were displaced in San Rafael last week when Caltrans swept a homeless encampment from a parking lot located under the Highway 101 viaduct. More than 30 of the ousted campers elected to move to a new city-sanctioned homeless encampment, the “service support area,” located under the freeway at Fifth Avenue.

The spot is extremely loud due to traffic noise. It was chosen because the campers were already living there, says San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin. In addition, Caltrans, the owner of the property, was willing to work with the city on a supportive area.

San Rafael is providing restrooms, handwashing stations, a phone charging station and garbage pick-up at the service support area, which can accommodate up to 44 people. Surrounded by chain link fencing, a 24-hour security guard is posted at the entrance. Campers may come and go at will; however, guests are not allowed inside the enclosure.

“The security was at the request of the women,” Murphy said. “They don’t want weird guys coming into their tents in the middle of the night, which is what was happening at the other sites.”

Christal Gift, a resident of the service support area, says she was anchored out in Richardson Bay. The boat she stayed on was eventually seized by the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency. She’s been living under the freeway for months and decided to move into the designated area.

“It’s OK here,” Gift said. “But I wake up and all I see is fences.”

With the goal of putting campers on the path to housing, the service support area is a temporary measure. The wait could be long. The county, which is short on emergency shelter space, recently reported that 500 homeless people are on the waiting list for permanent supportive housing, though Marin just received 115 housing vouchers from the federal government.

Still, there are 1,034 homeless people in the county, according to the latest homeless count conducted in early 2019. Murphy believes the number increased during the pandemic.

San Rafael’s support service area population represents only a portion of the city’s estimated 255 homeless people. Those living outside the encampment will be affected by an anti-camping ordinance passed last week by the San Rafael City Council. Two popular places for the homeless to camp, Boyd Park and the downtown parking garages, are now off-limits due to concerns about fires, according to the mayor. Aside from these locations, camping is permitted on public property.

The police will enforce the new camping ban; however, if they write a citation, there is no monetary fine. Instead, the case is resolved in Marin Community Court, which is designed to assist the homeless and people with mental health issues. A judge may order the defendant to connect with social services or perform community service.

“This is not necessarily a criminal justice issue,” Sgt. Carl Huber of the San Rafael police department said. “The fine system wasn’t getting us anywhere.”

Sausalito, on the other hand, is currently issuing citations with a fine of up to $500 to anyone camping in Marinship Park outside of the designated homeless encampment. The city marked 40 spots for tents within a fenced area. On Friday evening, I counted 42 tents, a “gym,” and a child’s play zone. Based on the configured space, there is no room for additional tents, though there is still plenty of open space in Marinship Park to expand the camp. 

“Some of the campers are a bit spread out and have more than one tent,” Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman said. “The city continues to monitor.”

Last month, Novato passed two ordinances severely curtailing camping on public property. One ordinance includes a sweeping daytime camping ban, yet a federal judge recently prevented Sausalito from enacting such a law.

A violation of Novato’s ordinances is a misdemeanor; however, enforcement won’t begin until the CDC relaxes restrictions about keeping homeless encampments in place or Marin County reaches a 90% vaccination rate for residents 16 and older.

California Homeless Union Attorney Anthony Prince says Novato’s anti-camping laws are unconstitutional and a violation of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. Boise. The ruling affirmed people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city cannot offer them an adequate shelter option. The Homeless Union will be filing in federal court for an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Novato’s ordinances.

Novato just announced it is considering entering into an agreement with nonprofit Homeward Bound to provide up to 15 spaces in its Novato shelter. With more than 300 homeless people tallied in Novato during the last count, it won’t be enough to allow the city to skirt Martin v Boise.

Sausalito, too, may soon be back in court. A federal judge authorized Sausalito to move a homeless encampment from a location near Dunphy Park to Marinship Park. However, Prince thinks the city is now violating the court order by ticketing campers who are in Marinship Park, but not in the enclosed section.

“A city does have a right to place reasonable limitations on camping to prevent interference with city business, or for public health and safety, such as on a railroad track or getting in and out of a hospital,” Prince said. “As far as camping in an otherwise public space, they cannot cite people without first offering relocation to a shelter or housing.”

As cities struggle to connect their homeless populations with Marin’s limited shelter, housing and supportive services, they’ll likely continue to push the boundaries of Martin v Boise. And the Homeless Union vows to be there when they do.

Next week, we’ll examine Marin County’s efforts to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paragraph ten has been changed to reflect the fact that the boat Gift was staying on was seized by the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency, not Sausalito.

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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