Novato advances restrictions on homeless campers
Novato has advanced new restrictions that would limit where homeless people can camp on public property in the city.
The city council voted unanimously on Tuesday in favor of proposed ordinances to ban camping and related activities such as fires, near facilities deemed “critical” by the city, in areas at high risk of forest fires and streams and streams. Camping in public areas would also be prohibited except from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The board will vote on whether to give final approval at its June 8 meeting.
The proposed rules are a direct response to a camp at Lee Gerner Park, one of many local camps that have developed during the coronavirus pandemic and that have created controversy among residents who say they are concerned about their safety.
City Attorney Jeff Walter told council the rules strike a balance between addressing residents’ concerns and respecting federal case law that allows sleeping in public spaces when there is no refuge beds available. The ordinances, he said, would not place general restrictions on camping in public areas, but would instead aim to protect facilities and waterways from potential hazards such as fires and impacts on the land. habitat.
“The goal here is not just to drive people away from certain areas because there is a sense of dissatisfaction with their conduct,” Walter told the council, “but it is a concern about what their conduct produces. “
An ordinance prohibits camping, camping supplies, occupying tents and related shelters, and storing personal property on or within 50 feet of areas considered “critical infrastructure” by council. What is considered critical will be decided by the board at the June 8 meeting. Some of the options that will be considered include government buildings, schools, hospitals, medical buildings, communications equipment, bridges, roads, dikes, railways, water sources, electrical wires, daycares and playgrounds, among others. The second ordinance would enforce similar camping restrictions within 50 feet on either side of a bank or stream bed.
Some residents and council members questioned whether the camping ban could also apply to areas near commercial properties such as restaurants and grocery stores, as well as walking and cycling trails.
While city staff consider these options, City Manager Adam McGill has tried to temper expectations.
“We have to be careful not to overdo it,” said McGill.
This is because of a landmark Federal Court decision in Martin v. Wooded. The 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2018 that local governments could not prohibit someone from sleeping on public land if there was not enough room for accommodation . Such bans, the court ruled, would essentially bar someone from sleeping, thus constituting a cruel and unusual form of punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
“Under Boise, we have to allow people to legally sleep, sit, etc., somewhere if there are no shelters,” McGill said.
However, the decision left the door open for local governments to impose reasonable regulations on camping as long as they didn’t punish someone for not being able to afford to sleep in a private space, Walter said.
San Rafael-based defense attorney Charles Dresow has questioned the legality of Novato’s proposal.
“It is unlikely that this proposed ordinance will pass a constitutional challenge,” Dresow said. “The definition of critical infrastructure contained in the ordinance is so broad that if passed, it will allow city council to declare almost any property or area within city limits as critical infrastructure.”
“Government agencies are not allowed to label anything as critical infrastructure, when it is by no definition other than their own, simply to serve their policy goals of removing campsites and homeless people from sight. of the public, ”he said. “The definition of critical infrastructure must be made more precise before the adoption of the ordinance.”
In addition to case law, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year issued guidance calling on local governments not to uproot homeless camps as it could spread the coronavirus. The combination of these two restrictions led the city not to remove the Lee Gerner Park camp.
An attempt to ban daytime camping in public spaces and move a homeless camp from Dunphy Park to Marinship Park in Sausalito earlier this year was temporarily halted by a federal judge who cited federal guidelines on coronavirus on these camps. This week, the judge allowed Sausalito to proceed with the move, but continued to block the enforcement of a daytime camping order.
McGill said the judge’s ruling will not affect the daytime camping rules proposed by Novato.
“The city attorney’s office has reviewed the Sausalito case, which focuses closely on their specific issues and responses,” McGill wrote in an email last week. “We do not believe that the Sausalito decision has an impact on our proposed orders which, in our opinion, are consistent with the Martin v. Wooded.”
To avoid a challenge similar to Sausalito’s, Novato’s proposal includes certain triggers to determine when the ordinance goes into effect. The first is if the federal camp guidelines are rescinded. The second option is if Marin County is downgraded to yellow level as part of the California Coronavirus Reopening Program, when 90% of residents in the county aged 16 above are fully vaccinated and when vaccinations for residents homeless people are available.
Novato Police Sgt. Alan Bates said a mobile vaccination site has been deployed in Lee Gerner Park twice so far. He estimated that around 20% of residents have been fully immunized.
Based on the state’s plans to cancel its coronavirus reopening system from June 15 and current vaccination rates in Marin, the city predicts that the camping restrictions should be able to take effect on July 9, a McGill said.
Jason Sarris, one of the residents living at Lee Gerner Park, told council the order would be tantamount to sweeping the park of homeless residents without providing them with another place to go. City officials disputed this assessment.
“This is wrong,” Sarris told the board. “It’s a social problem. It is a human question. You can’t just sweep us away without giving us an alternative. We will fight this in court if we have to.
County officials do not support the creation of a temporary camp for the homeless. Instead, they plan to continue to focus resources on connecting homeless residents to housing with supportive services.
Craig McCurdy, a resident of Novato, whose optometry practice borders on Lee Gerner Park, called for tighter camping restrictions, including setbacks for businesses.
“I would love to see our town of Novato put as much pressure on the county as possible,” McCurdy told council. “They are the ones who need to create a temporary site for the homeless. They are shirking their responsibilities.
Other residents have called for the complete removal from the Lee Gerner Park camp. Melanie Swanson, a resident of Novato, said she and other residents were ready to take the case to court regarding the impacts on Novato Creek, which runs through the park.
“There will be a trial unless this situation is directly addressed,” she told council.