Novato officials and an organization that represents homeless people have announced a settlement in a federal case challenging the city’s anti-camping rules.
The agreement between the city and the California Homeless Union requires the city to keep its sanctioned camp at Lee Gerner Park open for at least two more years, but it would allow the city to continue enforcing its camping regulations with minor changes.
The city also agreed to form a housing and homelessness-focused committee of up to seven members to oversee the camp and housing opportunities. At least two seats on the committee are reserved for union members.
The settlement, announced Tuesday night by city council, comes more than two years after a group of homeless residents set up what they dubbed “Camp Compassion” as the pandemic spread.
Jason Sarris, a former park resident who recently found housing in San Rafael, called the agreement “groundbreaking” and an opportunity for more homeless residents to be connected to services.
“To have extended the camp by two years to give people a sense of security and security and to have an open door for the homeless when places become available is great. This camp works,” Sarris said on Wednesday.
Councilwoman Pat Eklund said she supports the agreement, saying it allows the city to enforce its camping rules while continuing its efforts to provide services to the homeless.
“It allows us to manage the existing campground at Lee Gerner together, which was really a win-win,” Eklund said Wednesday, “because it has allowed the homeless to be in a safe place, in a place that does not disturb the neighboring tenants or property owners as well as the community and a safe place to stay during their apartment search.
Not all residents support the agreement. Novato resident Melanie Swanson, who has criticized the city’s enforcement of the Lee Gerner Park camp and other homeless camps in the city, described the settlement as “outrageous.”
“Concerned citizens of Novato have literally banged the drum for the past few years to get the city council’s attention and to protest against the indiscriminate use of Lee Gerner Park as a homeless camp,” Swanson wrote in an email. “The fact that the council reached this agreement without the residents of Novato being involved is the most undemocratic measure in years.”
The settlement is scheduled to be remanded to the US District Court of Northern California for final approval.
Campers represented by the California Homeless Union sued the city last year after the city council passed its camping rules in response to concerns from residents and nearby business owners about Lee Gerner Park Camp. The rules restricted camping to areas within 50 feet of facilities considered “critical infrastructure,” including schools, government buildings, libraries, playgrounds, utilities, evacuation routes and other areas.
Similar restrictions applied to streams and streams like Novato Creek, which flows through the park and which critics say was polluted by camp. Violators faced criminal charges.
The California Homeless Union said the rules violate a 2018 decision by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise. This ruling prohibits authorities from preventing people from sleeping on public land unless they have adequate shelter available. Such bans essentially make it illegal to sleep anywhere, and thus constitute a cruel and unusual punishment unconstitutional, the court found.
In particular, the union said the city’s definition of critical infrastructure was too broad and would essentially create a camping ban for all public areas of the city. In July 2021, a federal judge ordered the city to stop enforcing the ordinance until the case was resolved.
The union’s lead lawyer, Anthony Prince, said he had no problem with camping restrictions as long as they were reasonable. The settlement requires the city to remove a list of examples of critical infrastructure from the ordinance.
“We’re glad the City of Novato found its way to what we believe is a very favorable agreement,” Prince said Wednesday.
The required rule change is semantic in nature and doesn’t actually change the city’s definition of what constitutes critical infrastructure, which was approved under a separate resolution unaffected by the settlement, City Manager Adam McGill said.
“It really doesn’t change anything,” McGill said.
The council will review the changes at its Aug. 23 meeting, McGill said.
Last year, the city agreed to set up a temporary sanctioned camp in Lee Gerner Park that would include fences, tents, bathrooms, security and other services until the case was resolved. The settlement requires the camp to remain in place for at least two more years, and possibly longer if the new Homelessness Committee deems it necessary.
The agreement also requires the city to accept new residents of the camp, with a maximum of 18 residents, which was not required in the previous agreement.
McGill said the camp costs about $200,000 to $300,000 a year to operate and maintain, although he said an ongoing cost estimate has not yet been completed. While the city can leave the camp as it is, staff are also exploring other options, such as tiny homes or pallet homes, which could cost more.
“This settlement agreement will likely result in others improving their circumstances and being in a more stable, sanctioned camp environment rather than camping out of fear of arrest or other discomfort,” McGill said.
According to city and union officials, several camp residents have been linked to shelters since it opened. Among them was Sarris, who said he had lived on the street for about 12 years.
“To be inside now is beautiful and it will start a new chapter of my life,” Sarris said.