Novato homeless camp builds sense of community

  • Novato public works director Chris Blunk, left, and city employee Will Morat, center, talk with Jason Sarris, a resident of Lee Gerner Park homeless camp, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Gene Hill, left, and Jesse Roach play guitar at Lee Gerner Park Homeless Camp in Novato, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Jason Sarris, a resident of Lee Gerner Park in Novato, walks through the city-sanctioned homeless camp on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

Jason Sarris, who lives in the Novato Licensed Camp for the Homeless, was surprised one night to find that the town’s Director of Public Works, Christopher Blunk, had paid out of pocket to bring campers a Chipotle dinner.

In appreciation, camp residents bought Blunk and his department a cake.

“It was just wonderful for people who, frankly, don’t have to do much to do anything good to us,” Blunk said.

Acts of kindness are more common these days. After nearly two years of contention, the Lee Gerner Park camp is operating in harmony, park residents and city officials said.

Just three months ago, visitors to the park encountered tents and belongings of residents scattered among the trees and buildings along Novato Creek. Now the park has clear paths and a section blocked off by what looks like a wooden fence. Behind it is what one resident called “our own gated community.”

The campground is the result of a temporary court settlement between the city and the California Homeless Union in an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the city’s camping restrictions. Last year, the city agreed to build the temporary campsite for park residents until the lawsuit is resolved.

Sarris said while the new shelter is only temporary and the result of a court order, it shows what a city can do for the homeless if it tries and could serve as a model for other communities.

“What we have now is our dignity and no fear of criminalization,” Sarris said.

Many camp residents say they are grateful to have the new amenities and sense of community that camp offers.

Inside the fence is an aisle of large tents — many provided by the city — with homemade artwork, bikes, a shopping cart or two, dogs, and assorted furniture. Further on, the camp opens up to a common area with a picnic table, USB phone charging station, portable toilets and sinks, lost and found box, fire extinguisher, metal grill containing non-perishable foods and assorted waste. cans.

Elaborate town signs inside the fence detailing the code of conduct are surrounded by intricate chalk art. Among these are three of the residents’ own rules drawn in chalk: “Never judge, don’t steal, be grateful.”

Zachary Boulware, 42, said he has been living in the park on and off for five years. Although he said he didn’t like living closer to other people, he said it was much quieter at the park.

“It’s nice to have a little community here,” Boulware said while working on a painting at one of the picnic tables. “For example, like last night, my girlfriend and I had nothing to eat. Friends of ours at the end said, ‘Well, we’ll buy the food if you cook it.’ So they bought burgers and we made burgers last night for all of us. It was nice. It’s nice here. I like it.”

On a recent afternoon, campers seemed to be always on the move and the site was filled with conversations between residents and some guests. Two men played guitar at a picnic table while a Marin Community Action volunteer dropped off some meals and stayed to chat. Boulware took a second from his painting when someone commented on his T-shirt that read, “Money Moves.”

“I hate money,” Boulware said. “It’s a good shirt though.”

Blunk said the camp was largely complete by early January, with residents slowly moving in over the following weeks. So far, feedback from park residents and outside residents has been positive, he said.

“It’s still a bit of a work in progress, but it seems to be working pretty well,” Blunk said.

As the head of a department that normally deals with street repairs, park maintenance, lamp post replacements and street sweeping, Blunk said the construction of a homeless camp was a very different experience overall. In the past, his experience with the homeless often involved working on fixing a bridge and asking the people sleeping under it to move.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about who these people were, where they were going to go, how they were going to get there,” Blunk said.

But as he and others helped move the belongings and homes of Lee Gerner Park residents to the new campground, it was a much more personal experience.

“It put some of my day-to-day challenges into perspective when you see that,” Blunk said. “I got to know just about everyone who lives there on one level or another. There are some that I consider friends now and I can’t wait to go see them. He there are diapers and diapers for everyone and how they got to this place, but at the end of the day, they’re all people.

The camp is only open to people who lived in the park when the court agreement was reached last year. According to Sarris, 14 of the 18 eligible residents remain in the camp. When new people set up tents in the park, the city posted 72-hour notices telling them to leave. Blunk said they are trying to get a case manager to contact them, but it’s difficult because accommodation space is limited in Marin.

Most of the time, Sarris said, he and other camp residents inform new arrivals of the town’s rules and they leave on their own.

“People desperately want to camp here,” Sarris said. “It’s a good model. Too bad it’s a one-off deal.

Meanwhile, the federal lawsuit between the city and the California Homeless Union continues. The city passed rules last year prohibiting people from keeping their property on public land during the day and setting restrictions on where a person can camp, such as banning camps near areas considered by the city as “critical infrastructures”.

The rules were passed in response to community outcry over the park’s encampment, which has grown during the pandemic. Residents said they did not feel comfortable going to a public park, and nearby business owners said they were harassed by some of the park’s occupants. Residents of the park said they were also the target of harassment from people who wanted them gone.

A federal judge ordered the city to stop enforcing the rules until the dispute is resolved. The city declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Anthony Prince, senior attorney for the California Homeless Union, said while the camp was a victory and gave residents a sense of belonging, they were still working to overturn what he said were unconstitutional rules. The case is before a magistrate for discussion of possible settlements, but could go to trial if necessary, Prince said.

“The camp, we believe, is a symbol of what can be achieved when homeless people organize, push back and solidify their community,” Prince said.

Comments are closed.