The City of Novato and homeless Lee Gerner Park residents have agreed to create a temporary sanctioned camp in the park until a lawsuit challenging the city’s new anti-camping rules is resolved.
Under the agreement approved by a federal judge on Monday, the city will create a fenced-in camping area on the east side of the park and provide amenities such as bathrooms, showers and on-site security. A 6ft high wooden fence will be erected around the camping area and residents will have to follow a code of conduct or face eviction.
The city must also offer to provide a two-person tent for each resident, although residents are not required to accept them.
The U.S. District Court for Northern California continues to bar the city from enforcing its recently approved camping restrictions for public lands, which it has done since issuing a temporary restraining order in July . However, city officials and county social workers are authorized to attempt to connect camp residents to temporary or permanent housing.
Jason Sarris, a park resident and president of the Novato Chapter of the California Homeless Union, which represents park residents in court, called the agreement a “huge victory” for their community.
“That’s what we wanted from day one,” Sarris said on Tuesday. “We asked for something like this, a safe place, a place where we won’t be criminalized, and I think we accomplished that with this preliminary injunction.”
Novato Mayor Pat Eklund said the deal “will provide a better place for homeless people camping there while allowing Lee Gerner Park to be brought back into the community.”
As for why the city made the deal, City Manager Adam McGill said he couldn’t comment beyond what’s included in a city announcement Tuesday due to ongoing litigation.
The new camping area should be operational in 30 to 45 days, depending on the city. City staff did not have an estimate Tuesday for the cost of building and maintaining the camping area, including additional services, but said the project would be paid for using federal stimulus funds. he received from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Eklund said she is confident the court will ultimately uphold the city’s camping restrictions that were passed earlier this year.
The agreement came a day before an evidentiary hearing was scheduled in which the two sides would argue over whether the city should be allowed to enforce its camping rules as the trial progresses. The hearing was canceled due to the agreement.
Anthony Prince, lead organizer and general counsel for the California Homeless Union, said he was confident camp residents would have been successful in continuing to block the ordinance if the hearing had taken place and believed that was the reason. for which the city entered into the agreement.
“They want to try to prevent his movement and they’re not going to prevent it,” Prince said at the park on Tuesday. “And we are proof of that.”
Homeless residents have lived in the park on Novato Boulevard for several years, with the camp size increasing during the coronavirus pandemic. The park adjoins a section of Novato Creek and is next to the Novato Library and several businesses.
The city did not evict residents from the park during this time for two main reasons. Federal coronavirus guidelines recommend that local governments refrain from moving homeless campers in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition, case law relating to the federal court case Martin v. Boise established in 2018 prohibits local governments in seven western states, including California, from banning someone from sleeping on public land if no adequate shelter space is available.
In the face of ongoing concerns raised by nearby residents and business owners about the camp for more than a year, Novato City Council approved two ordinances earlier this year limiting where people can camp on the land. public and prohibiting day camping.
The ordinances, passed in June, would prohibit daytime camping between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and prohibit camping and related activities within 50 feet of creeks, creeks, and any facilities the city deems critical. The city council has defined these essential facilities to include government buildings, libraries, playgrounds, escape routes, utility facilities, schools and others.
Additionally, the city has reached an agreement with homeless service organization Homeward Bound of Marin to reserve 15 shelter beds at its New Beginnings center for residents of Lee Gerner Park. Those beds would have allowed the city to evict residents of Lee Gerner Park who refused to be sent back to Homeward Bound had the court not barred the city from enforcing its camping rules.
The orders delayed any enforcement until some coronavirus cases had dropped to certain levels in an effort to comply with federal health guidelines. City prosecutors also said the order included reasonable restrictions that did not violate Martin v. Wooded.
The park’s homeless residents, represented by the California Homeless Union, filed a federal lawsuit soon after, alleging the orders are unconstitutional and violate Martin v. Wooded.
This week’s temporary agreement sets limits on what park residents and the city can do with camping. Camp residents are not permitted to consume alcohol or drugs, receive social visits from non-park residents in the camping area, light open fires, possess weapons, or store belongings personnel on trails or common areas. They should maintain a clean living space free of litter and debris. No new campers are allowed to join the campsite and all park residents must agree to be placed in the camping area or risk being evicted.
Violations of this code of conduct will require the city to provide notice to the resident and an opportunity to challenge the matter, first with the city and then before a federal magistrate judge if necessary.
Prince said an “unprecedented” provision of the agreement allows camp residents to have a union representative present during any dispute.
The city must provide each camp resident with a two-person tent, personal storage area, portable bathrooms, weekly shower stations, health and social services in partnership with the county, collection and the garbage maintenance and 24-hour on-site security outside the camp. Novato police officers will be authorized to arrest or detain in the park a person suspected of having committed a crime. Some donations to camp will continue to be permitted.
Sarris and Prince say that certain provisions of the agreement – such as the requirement for all residents of the camping area to wear a face covering when outside their tent, the mandatory distance of 6 feet between residents and banning social visits from outside visitors – will be difficult for the city to enforce.
“There’s no way they’re stopping people from visiting,” Prince said. “There is no way they are preventing people from exercising their rights of free association under the Constitution. If people come and donate, they are already visitors.
The union said it had to push back on several original city proposals, including requiring camp residents to accept shelter beds at Homeward Bound centers; requiring camp residents to use only city-provided tents; establish a curfew for residents to be inside their tents; install an 8 foot high fence; and prohibiting any donation.
“We don’t want to be institutionalized,” Sarris said.