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Marin County unveils plan to clear Novato road camp (Marin IJ)

Posted on Category Press Coverage

Vehicles used for shelter line Binford Road near Rush Creek Open Space Preserve in Novato on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

By  | rhalstead@marinij.com | Marin Independent Journal
PUBLISHED:  | UPDATED: 

Marin County has devised a three-year plan to clear a large group of vehicle campers along a road just north of the Novato city limits.

The camp on Binford Road grew from a dozen or so recreational vehicles before the COVID-19 pandemic to a refuge for approximately 80 to 90 people in more than 100 vehicles today.

The county plan is being underwritten by a new $1.6 million state grant. Marin supervisors received a report on the strategy at their weekly meeting Tuesday.

“No plan is perfect, but I fully support the plan we have before us,” said Supervisor Eric Lucan, whose district includes Binford Road. “Simply shuffling unhoused individuals around the county is not a solution. That’s a reaction.”

But some who have been calling for the clearing of the camp for more than a year disagreed.

“It is like a Third World country at times on Binford Road,” said activist Melanie Morgan, a Novato resident. “The Marin County Board of Supervisors seems to be very deliberately ignoring the fact that Binford has become a breeding ground for crime, squalor, filth and health hazards.”

Assistant County Administrator Dan Eilerman said the county’s plan consists of three parts: increased efforts to find housing for people living at the camp; enforced removal of abandoned vehicles and possessions in the public right of way; and environmental protection of Rush Creek Preserve wetlands east of Binford Road.

“While we will actively seek cooperation,” Eilerman said, “our grant conditions do require us to resolve the encampment within three years.”

The grant will supply $875,000 to pay the salaries of two outreach workers, one housing case manager and a part-time supervisor. The remaining $703,700 will pay for direct assistance to campers, additional outreach, interim shelter and services such as trash pick-up and recreational vehicle wastewater pumping.

The county’s Department of Health and Human Services will also provide previously budgeted support of an estimated $1.8 million over the next three years. This will include supplying money for security deposits, first and last month’s rent and other housing-related costs.

In April, Gary Naja-Riese, Marin’s homelessness director, said the county planned to use a previous $500,000 state grant to hire a full-time social worker to oversee support and housing services at the Binford camp.

On Tuesday, Naja-Riese said Community Action Marin and the Downtown Streets Team have been visiting the site weekly to offer residents assistance in seeking employment or securing other services such as mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

“In recent months thus far,” Naja-Riese said, “five individuals from Binford Road have been housed and six are on an identified housing pathway.”

Benita McLarin, director of the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services, said, “We have had cases where our caseworkers have made multiple attempts with clients to try to engage them to get them into our system, and they said no.”

McLarin said that because of the persistence of county caseworkers, many of the people who initially refused help moved on to obtain housing — “but it took time because people didn’t trust the system.”

Zoë Neil, director of the Marin County branch of the Downtown Streets Team, said, “It has taken us two-plus years of providing weekly and intentional outreach to build and earn the trust of the Binford community.”

Eilerman said the county’s No. 1 goal is to find permanent supportive housing for the Binford Road campers, and the county will seek to secure housing for half of the approximately 90 residents within two years.

Following the meeting, however, Naja-Riese said he doesn’t expect all of the residents will require supportive housing, which involves considerable additional ongoing costs. Some of the people living at the camp are chronically homeless while others work part- or full-time jobs but can’t afford Marin’s high rents.

Regarding enforcement, Eilerman said the county will notify the campers, possibly as early as this week, that unclaimed vehicles and possessions stored in the public right of way will be removed.

Eilerman said that under the advice of county counsel, residents will be given a 30-day pre-notice and a subsequent 15-day action notice before vehicles and possessions are removed. Residents will be given 90 days to claim the items before they are destroyed.

While the state has given the county three years to clear the encampment, Eilerman said a road improvement project for that section of Binford Road is set to commence in 2025 and could require the removal of any remaining vehicles at that time.

Eilerman said that as part of the project, the public works department install barriers to prevent runoff into the wetland.

“This will have the effect of potentially eliminating parking along the east side of Binford Road,” he said.

Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters asked Eilerman to elaborate on steps that are being taken to protect the wetlands.

Eilerman said that the public works office is installing berms on the east side of Binford Road. Moulton-Peters emphasized the fact that in addition to protecting the wetlands, the berms were meant to prevent new vehicles from parking there.

This, however, didn’t satisfy some of the critics of the county’s plan, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“There is no plan to stop vehicles from coming,” said Toni Shroyer of Novato. “I was out on Binford Road yesterday. It’s worse than ever before with trash and more vehicles.”

Shroyer said residents there are vandalizing and ignoring the newly placed berms.

“What happens when the residents on Binford Road do not want to be housed?” Shroyer asked. “It’s a free country.”

Lucan suggested that perhaps the Marin County Sheriff’s Office could record the license plates of the vehicles at the camp now so subsequent arrivals could be identified. Lucan said he had heard reports of other jurisdictions sending homeless residents to Binford Road.

Marin County sheriff’s Deputy Michael Thompson, who attended the meeting, was noncommittal about Lucan’s suggestion.

Thompson, however, said, “I talk to people living there regularly and can confirm that people do report being sent there by other jurisdictions. We would expect that to continue to some degree.”

Rick Williams, who operates a business near the camp said, “Three years is unacceptable. Move up your timeline.”

Used with permission by the Marin Independent Journal.
Read article at the Marin IJ and subscribe to the Marin IJ.