Homelessness in a Pandemic: How Marin County Is Coping With a Growing Problem

Homelessness American Flag Tent

Marin County residents have big hearts — at least that is how we like to think of ourselves — and, in fact, Marin ranked at the top of a 2019 list of most generous counties in California. But the homeless encampments that have become more established and visible, most notably at Lee Garner Park in Novato and Dunphy Park in Sausalito, are testing the patience of Marin citizens and exposing both the reality of our affordable housing shortage and the complexity of tackling the range of problems associated with homelessness. It is painful to face evidence of human struggles and societal safety net failures up close, every day, and in our own “backyards.” For residents and business owners, the presence of homeless encampments brings sadness, anger or frustration. For some, especially those within the homeless community, there is a sense of alienation and hopelessness. While a certain percentage of Marin residents are convinced local government is not doing enough to compassionately care for the unhoused, others believe local government is not doing enough to clear out the encampments. Heated discussions about the best approach to handling homelessness in our Marin communities play out in city council meetings across the county and online in Nextdoor neighborhood threads, featuring hundreds of emotional posts.

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In a recent survey of Bay Area citizens by the Bay Area Council, it is homelessness, more than Covid-19, wildfires, racial inequality or climate change, which is at the top of the list of concerns for Bay Area dwellers. This is in part because the homeless population has grown as a result of the downturn in the economy due to the pandemic, and in part because the existing homeless population has become more visibly ensconced in encampments due to shelter-in-place ordinances. “My observation is that a large number of the encampments emerged last spring after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued health guidance statements,” says Andrew Hening, cofounder and project director of Opening Doors Marin, Marin County’s public-private homelessness nonprofit. “One thing people don’t realize is that many county service providers shut down, so people in the homeless community are sticking together for a sense of community. The encampments serve as a de facto community during the pandemic.” 

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Encampments, such as the assorted tents along the creek next to Novato’s Public Library (Lee Garner Park), waxed and waned before the pandemic. Previously, the few tents tucked into the shrubbery along the creek were barely visible. Now the colorful tents — between 15 to 25 over the past year — look like a more permanent village, with outhouses, hand-cleaning station and sheltered table. This establishment has particularly upset business proprietors surrounding the park, leading to escalating tensions and, in some cases, phone calls to 911. In April, Sgt. Alan Bates, the head of the Novato Police Department’s Community Response Team, updated the Rotary Club of Novato in a widely shared Zoom presentation in which he pointed out that 911 calls relating to the homeless come directly to police dispatchers rather than to county social workers who might be better equipped to deal with the nuances of working with the homeless population. Bates cites the 2019 ruling of Martin v. Boise, which decriminalized sleeping in a park when shelter services are not available, combined with the CDC guidelines to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, as reasons the Lee Garner encampment has grown. According to Bates, in the spring of 2021 there were approximately 100 homeless people in Novato living in cars, in tents and under bridges, and about 20% of that population is in Lee Garner Park. Because the park is in a central and visible location, it became a hot spot for controversy, representing, in the eyes of many residents, our city and county officials’ inability to address homelessness. “I told the doctors who have their offices next to the park, there are days when I go to sleep thinking about Lee Gerner Park and wake up the next morning thinking about Lee Garner Park,” said Bates in his update to the Rotary Club, adding that there are only three people designated to respond to issues related to the city’s entire homeless population.

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Novato City Manager Adam McGill also spends a significant portion of his energy and time trying to determine how to best address the crisis humanely. “The feeling is that the city doesn’t care or do anything, but the reality is that the homeless situation consumes a large part of every day in my office,” says McGill. “Homelessness is a societal issue that didn’t happen overnight. We have been building to this place for 50 years, and we will not be able to come up with one magic solution.” McGill, along with most city and county officials in Marin, believes that “housing is the answer to homelessness.” This is a deceptively simple phrase used to describe an extraordinarily complex problem due to a lack of affordable housing options in the county. 

Providing housing and “wrap-around” social services for physical and mental health for the chronically homeless has been shown to be the best way to address homelessness in an enduring way, according to Hening, who continues to consult for the City of San Rafael Homeless Planning and Outreach Department as he runs Opening Doors. Despite the uproar over encampments over the past year, Hening points out that compared to its Bay Area neighbors, Marin County has been doing an excellent job of moving people off the streets. In 2018–19, Marin was the only county in the state to see a reduction in the chronically homeless population. “Over the last five to six years we have tripled the availability of permanent supportive housing, offering long-term affordable units with wraparound services,” says Hening. This transition from homelessness to housing makes sense not only on a humanitarian level, but also on an economic level, as a chronically homeless person costs an estimated $60,000 of taxpayer money and housing with services costs approximately $30,000 annually. 

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“At this moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic, because Covid-19 unleashed resources that previously were not available to us,” says Hening. The state of California initiated Project Roomkey in March of 2020, housing 9,000 people in 6,000 units during the statewide shelter-in-place order. Building on the success of Project Roomkey, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the follow-up Project Homekey. In July of 2020, Project Homekey released $750 million in state and federal emergency funds to buy hotels and establish permanent housing facilities for people experiencing homelessness. Marin County received approximately $8.6 million to aid the purchase of 63 new units of permanent supportive housing in San Rafael and Corte Madera. In May, Newsom announced that California will spend $12 billion to address the state’s homeless crisis; $8.75 billion will expand Project Homekey, including the development of housing units with wraparound mental and behavioral health services. 

“Housing people from the encampments is a slower process than anyone would like because of lack of beds; we are hoping property owners will step up and come forward,” says Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters who represents Marin’s 3rd District, including the Dunphy Park encampment in Sausalito. Dunphy, like Lee Garner, has become a touchstone location in the argument about how to approach homelessness. In December of 2021, one unhoused man set up a tent in the park. Over the winter a combination of winter storms and stricter enforcement of Richardson Bay Regional Agency rules around mooring for more than 72 hours, including the increased impoundment of boats and debris deemed dangerous and/or likely to sink, brought a number of the longstanding “anchor out” (people living on their boats in Richardson Bay) community members on shore. Slowly the encampment at Dunphy Park expanded, from 22 tents in February to 44 tents in April, with the addition of outhouses and a handwashing station provided by the city. Like Lee Garner Park, the encampment became increasingly embroiled in controversy as it grew and in early April, after the Marin chapter of the California Homeless Union sued the city of Sausalito, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen granted a preliminary injunction barring Sausalito from enforcing a daytime camping ban or clearing the camp until the threat of coronavirus has dissipated. (City officials are hoping to move the encampment to Marinship Park, where they believe they can provide better services, including a mobile shower station, but are waiting to hear about Judge Chen’s ruling on this action). The delayed decision about relocation of the camp had unfortunate reverberations in the Sausalito community when the Sausalito Art Festival, held in Marinship Park, announced the cancelation of the 2021 Labor Day weekend event due to the possibility of the encampment moving to Marinship. 

homelessness trash on the street

Although no official survey of the Dunphy Park population has been conducted, Hening and Moulton-Peters believe the community is a mix of chronically homeless people who are seeking shelter and a smaller percentage of individuals who do not want permanent on-land housing, including a number of “anchor outs.” “Not everyone at Dunphy is homeless,” says Moulton-Peters. “For some it is a lifestyle and they want to live on the water. A lot of people are interested in living on land, but not everyone is.” 

Moulton-Peters, working with California state Senator Mike McGuire, has turned her attention to increasing the number of Marina slips available for Section 8 voucher holders to 10 percent to increase legal living options for those who want to go back to their boats. County supervisors, Opening Doors and the Marin Housing Authority are encouraging local property owners to offer Section 8 housing by providing loans to create and/or legalize second units for rent to low-income households. “This is a process,” says Moulton-Peters. “The human element is foremost for us — we will not do anything that will endanger people. We need to be thorough and intentional and that is what is lost on people.” 

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The acronym NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) is tossed around in Marin County because as much as Marinites want to help the chronically homeless, welcoming a homeless shelter into a neighborhood or opening a property to Section 8 low-income tenants is a step that is more difficult for many to take. Novato City Manager Adam McGill points out that Marin has established models of success, including Homeward Bound, a nonprofit homeless shelter, housing and service provider in Novato. “Twenty years ago, people at Hamilton were panicked — they were so worried about the Homeward Bound program, and there was huge uproar,” he says. “The residents were worried about mental illness and drug addiction coming into their neighborhood, but none of the concerns proved true, and now the community is proud of Homeward Bound because it is a very high functioning model, a beautiful program, and there have been no complaints.” McGill hopes that individuals who want to help will consider writing a check or dropping off donations to an established service program like Homeward Bound, Catholic Charities, Ritter House or the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Often, people want to drop donations directly to an encampment, something McGill discourages because the packaging and the donations themselves often turn to litter at the encampment. Opening Doors’ Hening echoes McGill’s concerns. “I don’t want to discourage compassionate generosity, but one thing I would encourage is slowing down and trying to help one person in a transformational way,” says Hening. “Aim for quality over quantity, and try to build a relationship with that person, to understand what that person really needs and the best way to help them.”

By the Numbers

The last homeless count by the Marin County Health and Human Services (HHS) department took place in January of 2019 and showed a decline in homelessness in the county from 1,117 people experiencing homelessness in Marin in January 2017 to 1,034 people experiencing homelessness in Marin in January 2019, a 7% reduction in the homeless population. Chronic homelessness, defined as someone who has been homeless for at least a year and who has a mental health or other disability that prevents them from maintaining housing, dropped 28% during that same two-year timeframe. At that time of the 2019 count, 17% of Marin’s homeless population was African-American, while African-Americans make up just 3% of the total county population, and 19% of the homeless population was Hispanic or Latino, while Hispanic/Latino individuals make up 16% of the total population. Due to Covid-19, the Marin County HHS homeless count did not take place in January 2021, however, the county conducted a count of people living in their cars in February of 2021, and found 486 people living in 381 cars and recreational vehicles, an increase of 91% since 2019.

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Kirsten Jones NeffKirsten Jones Neff is a Northern California journalist who writes regularly about the arts; parenting; mental health; the environment; and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. Her work has appeared in Edible Marin and Wine Country, Modern Farmer, Stanford Magazine, Ms. Magazine and Believer Magazine, among others.