Novato Ordinances Prohibit Tenting All through Most of Metropolis


After a year of relative stability during the pandemic, residents of a homeless camp in Novato will soon face evictions and criminal sanctions as new regulations severely restrict camping on public land.

Novato City Council unanimously passed two ordinances last week, apparently in response to around 25 homeless people living in a camp in Lee Gerner Park. Public outcry over the camp was loud and violent at council meetings last year, but the city was reluctant to act on Covid-19.

The camp represents only part of the people who will be affected by the new ordinances. The last census, done in January 2019, estimated 310 people were homeless in Novato. Many suspect that the number of homeless has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ordinances prohibit camping within 15 meters of “critical infrastructures” and bodies of water. While protecting critical infrastructure and water sounds very important, Novato seems to believe that almost every square foot of the city is suitable for protection.

The list includes government buildings, schools, fire stations, police stations, hospitals, antennas, bridges, roads, railroad tracks, drainage systems, levees, computer networks, public utilities, electrical lines, natural gas lines, telecommunications centers, and water sources, among others.

In addition, camping is only allowed between 9:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Violations of the ordinances are punished as an administrative offense.

The camp in Lee Gerner Park, called Camp Compassion by its residents, is manned around the clock and is adjacent to a public library and stream, all of which are prohibited by regulations. The campers who would like to stay together clearly have to move.

Perhaps they could move the warehouse to the Novato open space? No The city council has taken this into account by banning camping in a forest fire risk area.

Jason Sarris, the de facto leader of the camp, fears that the city’s new restrictions will leave no room for the homeless to camp in groups or individually. The day camping ban also poses problems. Some of the campers are disabled, including one on a wheelchair. They will find it difficult to pitch and pitch their tents every day.

“They basically don’t give us any options,” Sarris said.

An outspoken Novato resident, Nancy Abruzzo, has been campaigning for the camp to be closed for months, claiming crime and the environment are her main concerns. Nevertheless, she was surprised by the content of the regulations.

“I expected the city council to propose an alternative location for residents, possibly including tiny houses or safe sleeping areas,” said the Abruzzo.

Adam McGill, city manager for Novato, said in an email to the Pacific Sun that the city is discussing options like safe campsites, shelter beds and permanent housing, but no plans for these alternatives were mentioned during the city council meeting. In the same email, McGill refused to identify specific places for the homeless to camp until these potential options become a reality.

“Anywhere it isn’t illegal, it would be legal,” said McGill.

While McGill’s explanation isn’t particularly helpful in finding a new place to sleep, it does highlight the city’s attitude toward its homeless residents. Rather than enacting sweeping anti-camping ordinances, the city could have offset the demands of its housed and unhoused residents by designating a sanctioned camp in a less visible area than Lee Gerner Park.

The nearby town of Sausalito, which was experiencing a similar predicament, offered their campers an alternative parking space. A federal judge recently approved the relocation of Sausalito camp.

It remains to be seen whether a federal court will approve Novato’s actions. Lee Gerner Park residents plan to challenge the legality of the ordinances.

Martin v. Boise, a ruling by the 9th District Court of Appeals, upheld that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public land when a city cannot provide them with adequate accommodation. Marin County has a shortage of available beds for the homeless.

“A violation of the Novato regulations is an offense, and that clearly violates Martin v. Boise, “said Marin lawyer Lucie Hollingsworth’s legal assistance. “Aside from Boise, there is case law that defines why these regulations are invalid. The city council leaves unoccupied residents no choice but to leave the city of Novato or to face a criminal offense. “

McGill stands behind the legality of the ordinances and says the city is ready to enforce the new laws.

“The public prosecutor’s office has carefully drafted these regulations and is confident that they will comply with the Martin v. Boise and other related precedents fully comply with established case law, ”said McGill.

The camp residents are frustrated and confused. Not only do they not know where to sleep within the Novato city limits, they also do not know when they will be evicted from Lee Gerner Park.

The ordinances go into effect July 9, but the city won’t start enforcing until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lift their Covid-19 homeless camp policy to stay intact, or Marin County’s 90% vaccination rate for residents reaches 16 and older, whichever comes first.

While the city waits for the green light from the CDC or the county, the residents of Lee Gerner Park prepare for the loss of their security and community. Over the past year, they have helped each other and shared donated resources such as food and camping gear. Case workers knew where to find their clients and were able to provide them with consistent services, tasks that become more difficult when the homeless are forced to leave the camp.

“The people in our camp have made progress in life,” said Sarris. “If you’re told to move every two weeks, you can’t get a leg up.”

Ironically, at the same meeting that Novato City Council passed the ordinances restricting camping, they unanimously voted to spend up to $ 240,000 hiring new homeless workers. The money will go to a fund run by Marin communities, and the goal is to use federal funds for housing construction.

Even with Novato’s contribution to the district pool, no homeless person from the city is guaranteed a place to live. The weakest receive accommodation first, which leaves many residents of Lee Gerner Park out in the rain.

Daniel Hobbs, 65, is fit for work and is unlikely to receive an apartment from the county any time soon. Before he became homeless and moved into the camp six months ago, he lived for 18 years in a house in Novato’s Bahia district. Although Hobbs prefers to stay in Novato, he doesn’t want to break the law and admits he may have to leave if the city starts enforcing camping regulations.

Lee Gerner Park campers experienced a brief break from their nomadic life during the pandemic. Soon they will be on the road again, looking for places to sleep where they are not regularly hunted and criminalized.

“Most of us who are homeless have gone through bad things or made bad decisions,” Hobbs said. “We are completely normal people who have gotten into a challenging situation.”


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