Editorial: Helping San Rafael’s unhoused find safe place still the priority

San Rafael finds itself in a familiar legal pickle.

Its attempt to clear the homeless encampment that has taken root in Albert Park is running into a federal court order that forbids municipalities from banning homeless residents from pitching tents or parking their RVs on public land unless local government can prove there is adequate shelter available.

It is a ruling that has hindered efforts to clear camps in San Rafael, Novato and Sausalito.

In recent months, an encampment has grown to about 20 tents. Of those campers, six have been offered shelter and have been placed in more permanent housing.

Given the recent storms, it is a safer and more humane alternative.

Now, the San Rafael City Council finds itself in the uncomfortable middle, between wanting to do the right thing in terms of providing shelter for homeless residents and worries about safety and possible sanitation problems by allowing the encampment to remain.

Understandably, the encampment has generated objections from park users. The campers are taking space that’s supposed to be available for the public.

“The campsites are causing adverse health and safety, and nuisance conditions in the park; are exacerbating conflicts with park users; and are obstructing public use of the property for its intended purpose as a community park and recreational facility,” according to the city’s staff report.

Parents from the Parkside Preschool and Children’s Center, as well as neighbors near the park are worried about safety and sanitation.

But Jason Sarris, a local homeless advocate, told the council that if the city removes the encampment, it likely will take root on public land elsewhere in the city.

The RV encampment on Binford Road in Novato is a case in point. That took root after the county and cities banned them from parking in other areas.

Removing the campers without a plan to provide them shelter “is kicking the proverbial can down the road,” warned Sarris.

He’s right.

A court order, sought by the Albert Park campers, suspended the city’s plan to remove the camp on March 13. A hearing on the case is set for Monday.

Given the weather this winter, there is likely to be more rain, wind and cooler temperatures, leaving the campers and their nylon tents faced with perilous conditions.

“We have lives on the line who are in our community,” Councilmember Rachel Kertz said at a recent council meeting.

Mayor Kate Colin is no stranger to this challenge. She is one of the architects of Marin’s “housing first” model. The initiative has shown to work, but there is not enough housing readily available.

The city’s case hinges on providing “compelling” proof that the site the campers have picked poses a threat to public health and safety. City staff has made that case. As weather improves with the arrival of spring, the public’s use of the park for softball and baseball leagues and other activities will rise – making use of the park for which it is intended.

The city’s staff report also lists shelter options available, such as the expanded Mill Street emergency homeless shelter. Also, the city is moving forward with plans to turn an office building on Kerner Boulevard into a 40-room shelter and its search for a site to build a complex of so-called “tiny homes,” small and spartan independent units for homeless residents.

The city’s problem is that Albert Park’s campers will likely find another location in town.

Some have already taken root.

Removing the campers from Albert Park solves one problem, but it still leaves the city with the challenge of, as Kertz put it, taking care of those whose “lives are on the line.”

As Reported by Marin Independent Journal