Northern California City Relaxes Homeless Rules Amid Federal Lawsuit

Northern California City Relaxes Homeless Rules Amid Federal Lawsuit

The "Camp Integrity" homeless encampment on Andersen Drive in San Rafael, Calif., on April 16, 2024. (Brian Back/The Epoch Times)

Brian Back

Brian Back

4/17/2024

Updated: 4/18/2024

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The city council of San Rafael in Marin County, California, voted unanimously in a public hearing that ran late into Monday night, April 15, to approve a more relaxed version of its ordinance dealing with homeless camps and where they are allowed.
The ordinance was originally approved by the council in July 2023 to help curb violence, crime, fires, and littering at an encampment dubbed “Camp Integrity” in the Mahon Creek area near James B. Davidson Middle School.
Several days before the ordinance was set to take effect, a group of homeless residents represented by a local chapter of the California Homeless Union filed a lawsuit to block it in federal court. A judge tentatively granted their request and has since issued preliminary orders to limit certain aspects of the city ordinance.
San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin told the Marin Independent Journal the city has passed numerous ordinances in recent years as encampments have grown along with increased calls for police and fire response, but “has been sued in federal court every single time.”
Officials say the ordinance passed Monday, which goes into effect in June, allows campsites to double in size to up to 200 square feet for one person or up to 400 square feet for up to four people living together, provided the camps are located more than 250 feet away from schools and have 10-foot buffers between sites. It also prohibits camping 100 feet from playgrounds—about one-third of a regulation football field—and 10 feet from private property and public utility infrastructure.
San Rafael’s “Camp Integrity” has grown significantly over the past year with tents and other structures, and the accompanying drug use, sanitation problems, physical violence, and other issues are posing public health and safety hazards, according to the city.
“My business is surrounded,” Jay Ress, general manager of East Bay Tire Co., told the council at the meeting.
East Bay Tire purchased its property on Lincoln Avenue two-and-a-half years ago and invested $750,000 to renovate the site, Mr. Ress said. If the situation does not turn around soon they will be forced to shut down, he added.
“We moved into San Rafael because of the reputation the city has had in supporting the business community,” Mr. Ress said. “But with the current situation, that reputation is being completely ruined, and I think the city is doomed to more people leaving.”
Christine Miller, who with her husband Rick owns the 103-year-old nearby business Marin County Roofing Co., also pleaded with the council in a letter. She wrote the encampment next to her property has led to violent attacks against employees and resulted in the death of at least one homeless person in front of her business.
“These are not people who lost their jobs and have fallen on hard times,” Ms. Miller wrote. “These are people who are addicted to drugs and actively engaging in drug related activity. Nothing is being done to hold them accountable.”
City staff said rules at “Camp Integrity” have been enforced with incentives and voluntary compliance, and under the new ordinance, no homeless individuals will be charged with violations unless their unlawful conduct is knowing or willful.
“Is it enforcement never? Is that what you’re saying?” asked City Councilmember Maribeth Bushey.
Told some enforcement tools do remain available, Ms. Bushey asked, “And when, pray tell, will the city plan to exercise those tools?”
The law remains unsettled as to whether or not cities have the right to evict homeless campers on public property, and if San Rafael violated their federal injunction, the city could be held in contempt of court, officials noted.
In a similar case that could guide the fate of lawsuits targeting San Rafael and other cities, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear opening arguments April 22 in Grants Pass v. Johnson, which explores how far the Oregon city and others can go in policing homeless camps.
The case addresses the Eighth Amendment dealing with “cruel and unusual punishment,” which has been invoked to block oversight of encampments in cities where limited taxpayer-funded housing is available for homeless individuals. Lower court decisions in the case have focused on whether people are “involuntarily” homeless and would agree to leave an encampment and occupy a shelter bed if available.
The "Camp Integrity" homeless encampment on Andersen Drive in San Rafael, Calif., on April 16, 2024. (Brian Back/The Epoch Times)

The "Camp Integrity" homeless encampment on Andersen Drive in San Rafael, Calif., on April 16, 2024. (Brian Back/The Epoch Times)

The "Camp Integrity" homeless encampment on Andersen Drive in San Rafael, Calif., on April 16, 2024. (Brian Back/The Epoch Times)

The "Camp Integrity" homeless encampment on Andersen Drive in San Rafael, Calif., on April 16, 2024. (Brian Back/The Epoch Times)

As “Camp Integrity” has grown, the city has added garbage collection services, hand-washing stations, and six portable restrooms, two of which are ADA compliant. Some of the health and safety upgrades were requested by campers in a city-administered survey.
Marin County and the City of San Rafael jointly applied for $5.9 million in state funds earlier this year and say they are optimistic they will be awarded the money this month. The grant would add outreach staff, case managers, facilities such as mobile showers, and provide funds for interim housing.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom attended Redwood High School, just a few miles from San Rafael, and he previously lived with his family in a nearby Marin County estate that sold for $5.9 million before he was elected governor.
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Brian Back

Brian Back

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Brian Back is a longtime small business entrepreneur in California. He previously was founding editor and publisher of San Francisco-based Sustainable Industries, a reporter and columnist for the Portland Business Journal, staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a contributor to several other local and national media outlets. He earned an M.A. in journalism from Georgia State University and a B.A. in journalism from the University of Dayton.

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