Debate over homeless camps spreads to Novato farmer’s market
Visitors to the Novato Farmers Market expect to find an abundant mix of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, chefs, art and an assortment of other local offerings as they browse the rows of stalls. But in recent weeks, the market has become an unlikely forum in the ongoing debate about the city, which centers on a homeless settlement in a nearby park.
Kelly Smith, executive director of Novato Farmers Market, said it was natural to bring the discussion about Lee Gerner Park homeless camp to their Tuesday markets. On the one hand, the market located in a shopping center on 7th Street and Grant Avenue is the park’s direct northern neighbor.
“This creates a conversation within our own farmers market homeless community and how we can create solutions together,” Smith said. “It seems natural to me that this is a community meeting place.
Smith said she first noticed homeless residents in the park in 2019. The encampment, now named Camp Compassion by its residents, grew during the pandemic in 2020, attracting more attention from the city government and residents. As frustrated neighbors, traders and residents called on the city to withdraw the camp due to nuisance such as garbage, noise and harassment, city officials said they were limited to taking action. City cites federal coronavirus guidelines on homeless camps which recommend not moving them and federal case law protecting a person’s right to sleep in public spaces when no shelter space is available. available.
City council will consider an ordinance and resolution at its June 8 meeting that would limit campsites in public spaces and ban daytime camps from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
After seeing the ongoing virtual debates at City Hall on the issue over the past few months, Smith decided to contact one of the camp residents, Jason Sarris, who has become a spokesperson and advocate for the other residents. . When the market launched its final season on May 4, it had a new addition to its list: the Camp Compassion booth.
Every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sarris and a few other residents and advocates of the park set up a stall at the market where they tell visitors about the camp and sell works of art made by residents of Camp Compassion, from paintings to cushioned beds. handmade for pets.
“It gave them space to show they are human,” Smith said. “I think part of the misconception is that they are not human or look like the people who live in a dwelling.”
While homeless settlements are often set up out of public view, Sarris said he believes it is important to make these issues known to the public.
“What’s really difficult is how do you promote something that everyone wants to look away from and turn their back on? Sarris said. “We want to put a face to these county pie charts and statistics and let people know that these are real lives, real issues. This is what we are trying to do, to teach the community and let people know that we are not bad people.
Protesters from the homeless camp and the city’s actions so far have also shown up on May 4 to express their views. On Tuesday, protesters began handing out flyers to nearby businesses and passers-by near the market with contact details for city manager Adam McGill and members of city council. The satirical leaflet presents the homeless camp as a sort of housing ad advertisement with the banner “The newest neighborhood in Novato!” Camp by the stream® »
“Enjoy a carefree and affordable life in the popular Lee Gerner Park on the shores of Novato Creek!” the flyer says.
Novato resident Nancy Abruzzo helped copy and distribute some of the flyers in hopes of putting more pressure on the city council and city manager to take action.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Abruzzo said. “I have a feeling that if we hadn’t raised this issue in council time and time again, nothing would have been done. As soon as COVID hits, it’s like the city council looked away and said, “Well” and “Let’s just ignore this.” “
Abruzzo is calling on the city to move the camp to a licensed camping area, which camp residents such as Sarris have also requested.
“It is public property that the public can no longer enjoy now,” Abruzzo said.
County homelessness officials advise against a sanctioned camping area and instead focus on connecting homeless residents directly to supportive housing where they will find more success.
Novato resident Tief Gibbs also helped distribute the flyers. She said the camp has become a nuisance to local businesses and residences, including verbal assaults on park residents, littering, drug use, public nudity, public restroom use and the unsafe use of nearby park and county library. The county and state should be responsible for dealing with homelessness issues, not the city, Gibbs said.
However, Gibbs said the city is not doing enough, even with the latest camping restrictions that city council will review on June 8. The city, Gibbs said, has the ability, under its current ordinances, to remove the camp from the park.
“Adam McGill is neglecting his job as long as he does not enforce the current ordinances on the books,” Gibbs said. “He’s not doing his job. He does not take care of the town of Novato.
In an emailed statement, McGill said the pandemic and federal case law have compromised the city’s ability to enforce existing laws or create new laws. The new ordinance aims to balance the regulation of camper conduct while respecting these restrictions.
“The city council to which I report and for which I am responsible has continually assessed the situation and received legal advice from the city attorney’s office,” McGill wrote. “The role of the general manager is to ensure the direction of the municipal council. The government structure of the board / manager does not give the manager unilateral power to develop policies on issues that have such important consequences for the community. “
While Smith said she disagreed with the protesters, she said everyone has the right to speak out and express their opinions.
“This is what America is,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t try to stop them. As long as it’s peaceful and doesn’t affect people.