Sherman R. Frederick
“Well, that didn’t go as planned,” said one protester who gathered near Lee Gerner Park hoping to watch the Novato Police finally clear out the homeless encampment that has occupied the park since early 2020.
When Novato’s new camping ordinances took effect last Friday, it triggered a couple of moving parts to the homeless issue that vexes Marin. First, Novato City Manager Adam McGill warned people two weeks ago that the new laws would not immediately bring removal of the homeless tents at Lee Gerner Park. The city did give notice to the tenters in the park, which prohibits overnight camping within 50 feet of the creek. Not all of the tents currently in the park are in violation of that 50-foot rule. Also the homeless would still be able to tent in the park, but only at night.
People gathered at the park to watch the new laws enforced. They were disappointed. Nothing happened.
“Our group of concerned citizens is not a large group, but we are a vocal and effective group and we are all asking ourselves if Adam McGill, city manager of Novato, with aspirations of becoming Marin Sheriff cannot enforce a simple, common sense ordinance in his own city, how can we expect him to enforce the laws in an entire county?”
Another member of the group said she felt the city was “moving the goal posts” instead of working straight away to stop unfettered camping in the city.
On the other side, a homeless advocacy group that has been active in Marin announced that it would seek a temporary restraining order in federal court against Novato.
Anthony Prince, of the California Homeless Union said the group intends to file an injunction in the U.S. District Court of Northern California to prevent the city from enforcing the rules that it argues are unconstitutional and violate federal case law protecting a person’s right to sleep.
“The city of Novato will be creating a danger that does not otherwise exist,” Prince said. “Exposure to heat, exposure to the elements, exposure to COVID — all of those risks will be exacerbated if these ordinances are enforced.”
The California Homeless Union made similar arguments when the city of Sausalito wanted to create one site for overnight camping and move the impromptu camp at Dunphy Park to Marinship Park. It eventually lost the case and the federal court ruled that Sausalito could move all overnight camping to Marinship Park.
Novato’s approach is slightly different. It wants to ban all daytime camping on public property and nighttime camping within 50 feet of critical infrastructure. This infrastructure would include water sources, public buildings and wildfire areas. But a homeless person could still sleep in authorized public property.
And, in another add-on that came late into the strategy, Novato plans to enter into an agreement to offer “interim housing options to the unhoused in Lee Gerner Park.” The agreement will be with Homeward Bound of Marin.
This last component is expected to strengthen Novato’s case if, and when, it has to defend its actions in Federal court. Novato’s legal staff believes it can thread the needle in the Martin v. Boise case by enacting what it calls “reasonable restrictions” on camping so long as it does not ban camping entirely.
In its staff report, Novato said “The city and its partner service providers are engaged daily with those at Lee Gerner Park to offer services including shelter referrals, COVID-19 vaccines and housing alternatives. The city is actively engaged in negotiations with a local service organization to offer immediate interim housing options to most or all of the unhoused at Lee Gerner Park.”
One of the sticking points, the city has said, comes when the homeless in Lee Gerner Park who don’t want to accept interim housing either with the Homeward Bound services or at the Marinship Park facility in Sausalito.
One of the leaders of the Lee Gerner Park encampment said he won’t move out of the park because he’s settled into the park. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
In Sausalito, the re-location of all homeless at Dunphy Park to Marinship Park has been completed.
About 31 people were offered individual assistance in moving their camp equipment and personal belongings. A three-day “Notice to Vacate” was posted at Dunphy Park on Friday, June 25.
U.S. District Court Judge Edward M. Chen on May 26 granted the City’s motion to permit the relocation based on new findings and evidence showing that the move would be safely accomplished and that there was no toxic risk at the proposed Marinship Park encampment site due to the vessel abatement operations at the nearby U.S. Army Corp of Engineers base yard.
“I want to emphasize,” Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman said, “the City continues to work with other local elected officials and Marin County Health and Human Services, among others, to identify long-term solutions to the housing issues confronting those who have no appropriate overnight lodging.”
The work in Sausalito, the mayor told Marinscope, includes building on Sausalito’s Safe Harbor Program of the Waterfront Management Plan, as well as collaborating with Marin County and other Southern Marin Richardson Bay Regional Agency members in initiating new programs aimed at creating both temporary and longer-term housing.
Most recently, the City committed up to $40,000 to support the countywide initiative to help get people who have no options for overnight sleeping into permanent housing. The funding will come from $1.69 million in federal aid the city expects to receive under the American Rescue Plan Act.
“Our highest priority is to act in a manner that is safe, compassionate, and respectful of individual and community needs,” She said.
Novato strikes a similar tone in caring for the homeless.
In San Rafael, city leaders voted last week to ban camping in areas with high fire risk. It bans camping in Boyd Park and city parking garages. ‘
San Rafael has adopted a stance similar to Novato. Lawyers there say that Martin v. Boise allows cities to stop “anywhere goes” camping.