July 14, 2024
The ordinance limits the camping area of a single person to 10 feet by 10 feet. Camps with two or more people are limited to 200 square feet, regardless of the number of inhabitants. No camping area can be within 200 feet of another camp.

A federal judge has temporarily banned San Rafael from enforcing a city ordinance that restricts where homeless camps are allowed and how much space they can occupy.

U.S. District Judge Trina L. Thompson issued the temporary restraining order Wednesday after a group of homeless residents argued that the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. They alleged the city law criminalizes homelessness.

The ruling will halt enforcement of the city’s ordinance at least until Sept. 6, the day the next hearing on the matter has been scheduled.

“This is a monumental victory for the homeless,” Eddy Metz, one of the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in an email. “I’m proud that I could help others and myself through the victory of getting this restraining order.”

In a city statement, officials wrote that its ordinance “is a sound, responsible, and lawful regulation of public property,” and the city “intends to vigorously defend its regulation in court.”

“The ordinance does not criminalize homelessness,” officials wrote. “It allows persons with no alternative shelter to continue to camp in the City, but under reasonable time, place, and manner conditions.”

The ordinance limits the camping area of a single person to 10 feet by 10 feet. Camps with two or more people are limited to 200 square feet, regardless of the number of inhabitants. No camping area can be within 200 feet of another camp.

The ordinance also bans camping within 100 feet of a playground and within 10 feet of public utility equipment such as electrical boxes.

The law was approved as a way to curb a trend of violence, crime, littering and threats against public safety, city officials said.

The plaintiffs are residents of a 33-tent encampment at Mahon Creek path that they call “Camp Integrity.” The plaintiffs argue that breaking up large camps exposes the most vulnerable among them to higher health and safety risks.

They allege that the city has failed to provide adequate education on the new rules.

In court filings, the plaintiffs describe their struggles with mental health, disabilities and ailments to explain why they want to remain a community.

“Plaintiffs articulate valid concerns regarding their health and safety,” Thompson wrote in the ruling. “Namely, Plaintiffs would be prevented from accessing the communal benefits of Camp Integrity, including shared resources of food, water, bathrooms, and handwashing stations, and the protection afforded by physical closeness to other campers.”

“Female plaintiffs also assert that they rely on nearby campers for protection, including against rape, human trafficking, and domestic violence,” Thompson wrote.

“Given these assertions, Plaintiffs have sufficiently shown that they will likely suffer irreparable injury if the ordinance goes into effect,” Thompson wrote.

The city’s law expanded on its existing camping ban, which prohibits camping at Albert Park, Boyd Park, city open spaces and parking garages.

The ban at Albert Park on B Street came in March after a spike in reported fights, drug use and other illicit activity. The camp was evicted after a brief legal battle.

The camp at Mahon Creek Path was established shortly after. As the camp grew, so did complaints, officials said.

“This was an important action taken in response to public health, safety, and welfare concerns associated with the encampments in the City,” city officials wrote. “The unsafe conditions at encampments put both the unhoused and housed communities of San Rafael at risk.”

Last month, police arrested a camper at Mahon Creek Path on suspicion of attacking a man with a machete and lighting a tent on fire, police said. There was also an arrest of a suspected methamphetamine dealer at the camp in June. There have been additional reports of harassment and vandalism of nearby businesses.

A separate small camp at the Falkirk Cultural Center property and Menzies parking lot on Mission Avenue near City Hall was cleared Aug. 1 after a recent shooting and surge in criminal activity. Police made six arrests at the site, according to an order banning camping there until Aug. 31.

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The closure of that camp was delayed by a temporary restraining order. Plaintiff, Mark Rivera, 63, was able to remain at the site. In his complaint, Rivera said he has lived there for three years and relies on nearby water and restrooms. The suit says he is a stroke survivor and suffers from dementia, amnesia and vertigo and depends on his familiar surroundings to survive.

A hearing on that case is set for Tuesday.

Chris Hess, who leads the city’s housing and homelessness programs, said the city hosted outreach events at the Mahon Creek Path camp on Aug. 7 and 14. The city’s social services partners offered case management and health care, he said.

After adoption of the ordinance, Hess said one of the camp occupants has obtained an apartment with a housing voucher; two more have vouchers and are close to being housed; two others have been offered permanent supportive housing at the Casa Buena facility in Corte Madera and three others are expected to move into the South Eliseo supportive housing site when it opens for occupancy this fall.

City officials said staff “is committed to taking a phased approach to notice and enforcement, beginning with education and supportive services.”