The recent letter from Novato’s Chief of Police, Matthew McCaffrey, regarding the homeless
encampment at Lee Gerner Park contained multiple errors, which I, as a resident of the County-
approved encampment at the park, wish to correct.
- While Chief McCaffrey insisted that claims that any homeless persons were “kicked out” of
Lee Gerner Park were inaccurate, my own experience and observations indicate otherwise.
Novato police officers falsely claimed that Lee Garner Park was closing for remodeling and
restoration, and that I would have no choice but to leave. This pressure to force myself or other
Lee Gerner Park campers to move appears to be a violation of shelter in place. Nevertheless, I
respectfully took the police at their word, and voluntarily moved into a room for five days. My
willingness to comply with police wishes was made despite the fact that I knew that I and my
cherished companion, Gypsy, a greyhound-chihuahua mix, were safer in the park, where the
other unhoused individuals in the community knew both of us, and looked after our safety.
During the time that I was in the shelter, Gypsy was mauled to death by another dog. Gypsy had
been my companion for nearly five years, I adopted her when she was just a year old. When I
spoke publicly of my grief over the loss of Gypsy, I was cruelly mocked by Novato residents
Online. The tragedy was particularly pointless, as neither myself nor any of the other unhoused
campers were supposed to be moved or dispersed during the Covid-19 shelter in place.
- Chief McCaffrey claimed that the encampment posed problems because of its proximity to
Star Restaurant, the Novato Public Library, and the weekly farmer’s market. But at the
beginning of Covid-19 shelter in place, the homeless population was explicitly instructed by the
County to camp between the creek and the path that runs through the park. Therefore, it should
not have been a problem for businesses or the farmer’s market to have a row of tents along the
creek, since the campers were complying with actual public health policy established by the
- Chief McCaffrey claimed that “the areas was littered with trash, plants and trees were
damaged, and the creek under the Seventh Street bridge had become a makeshift toilet for
those living in the park.” But those living in our County-approved encampment in the park took
considerable care to protect the creek. And prior to the shelter in place, I personally brought
concerns about what others – not those living in the park – had been doing under the Seventh
Street bridge. Even though I and other campers described that area to police as a “biohazard”,
Novato police took no action, other than to claim that they were waiting for a dredger, a claim
that they repeated for over six months. When I correctly identified the persons who stayed in
and were soiling that area, the response from the officer indicated that the officer knew about
the issue longer than anyone in the camp had.
- While Chief McCaffrey claimed that campers had littered the park, we in the County-approved
encampment took considerable care to respect the property, and even though we were not
provided any trash receptacles, we managed to empty our trash regularly in a nearby CVS
dumpster. I note that during the shelter in place at Lee Gerner Park, the police constantly
goaded the campers to “keep the camp clean of trash”, even though the officers were aware
that using the dumpster was illegal. I further note that there was not a single city worker, police
officer, or volunteer that we observed cleaning up even one piece of litter in the creek since the
shelter in place. The camp is the sole reason the creek is clean.
- Chief McCaffrey claimed that his actions made the park safer. But in fact, the Chief’s actions
not only made a considerable number of persons less safe, his actions may also have skirted
the law. Specifically, the law established by U.S. Supreme Court Decision Martin vs. Boise, which
ruled that unless there is enough shelter space for the homeless population, city officials can’t
enforce anti-vagrancy laws or prohibitions against camping in public parks or sidewalks; and 2)
prohibitions against removing unhoused persons during shelter in place.
If Covid-19 has made anything clear, it’s that we’re all only as safe as the person next to us. The
City of Novato has the capability to comply with the laws regarding unhoused populations, and I
encourage them to engage more honestly with our most vulnerable citizens.
Lee Gerner Park