California Homeless Union v. Sausalito


Dunphy Park Encampment

By Anika Kapan, Features Editor, Graphics Editor

A $540,000 settlement between the Marin County branch of the California Homeless Union and the City of Sausalito resulted in the permanent closure of the city-run houseless encampment at Marinship Park on Aug. 15. 

This is the latest development in an ongoing legal struggle with the city that has resulted in numerous closures and relocations for the Sausalito houseless community, which began as an anchor-out camp in Dunphy Park named Camp Cormorant. 

Anthony Prince, California attorney and general counsel for the California Homeless Union, explained the outcome of the Settlement. “This was not a big legal victory by any means,” Prince said. “It was this political victory in the sense that for 18 months, this community persevered against some of the worst possible conditions imaginable.” 

Prince and the union have been organizing houseless communities in California for about eight years, preventing cities like Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Salinas from enforcing anti-houseless measures like daytime camping ordinances. 

“This agreement creates an opportunity for Sausalito’s municipal government to refocus its resources directly toward getting housing for each resident while also providing other services to the entire Sausalito community,” Sausalito’s press release regarding the settlement stated. 

The recipients, however, feel differently. 

 “Not everyone who needs housing assistance got it through this settlement,” Prince said. “It was a compromise, in some sense that we had a gun to our heads because the city was perfectly willing and happy to just continue litigating and closing the camp by attrition.” According to the union, Sausalito’s conduct in managing the encampment was more of a sustained effort to make conditions as hostile as possible within the camp, therefore forcing people to leave and gradually but indirectly closing it down. 

A feature article published by The Tam News in the fall of 2021 documented the lives of Camp Cormorant residents, many of them anchor-outs: members of the mariner community that had lived in Richardson Bay for years before their boats were removed by the Richardson Bay Regional Authority. The boats were said to have been removed because of environmental concerns regarding the eelgrass that grew on the bottom of Richardson Bay. 

Camp Cormorant was formed around January 2021 and was forcibly relocated in June 2021 by the Sausalito Police Department, first to the Marinship Park fields and then to the Marinship Park tennis courts. Marinship Park, at the time of the first attempted move, was found by the court to contain numerous health and safety concerns, one of which was the fiberglass pollution from the nearby boat-crushing operation. 

The initial relocation was justified by the city’s adoption of Resolutions 6008 and 6009 in February 2021, which prohibited daytime camping, closed most city property to overnight sleeping, and established procedures for the clearance and seizure of property in the encampment. The Sausalito police then entered the Dunphy encampment later that month, making an attempt to clear the area which was met with resistance from the community. 

“[Camp Cormorant] was able to successfully resist the Sausalito Police Department when they came to tear the encampment down, and so they had to back off that night,” Prince said. 

After the unsuccessful move, he said, the union was contacted by the residents of Dunphy Park. “The very next day they asked us if we could intervene and also file some kind of action in court, which … morphed into 18 months of litigation back and forth, bringing various motions, fighting the city.” 

Prince and the union finally filed a lawsuit in February 2021 against the city, resulting in a temporary restraining order that prevented the city and the police from moving the encampment. 

Sausalito’s resolutions and the relocation were accused by the union of violating both the United States and California constitutions, which sought an immediate injunction to prevent the closure of the Marinship encampment and the enforcement of the daytime and nighttime camping bans. The Union also cited Martin V. Boise, a 2018 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that banned cities from preventing houseless people from sleeping on public property when there were no adequate alternatives like shelters. 

Prince ultimately attributes the union’s involvement to the people actually living in the community. “There was already an existing group of leaders out there,” he said. “That’s how we organize. We don’t just bring people in from the outside. We are usually contacted by people that are already fighting within the camps.” 

“We’re not waiting for anyone to step in and solve the problem, from amongst those who created the problem,” Prince said. “Our primary objective is to empower. The whole process has been one of empowering homeless people.” 

The union has moved on to helping and training houseless individuals to file their own pro se (without an attorney) lawsuits against the city, which the settlement in no way prohibits. 

Conditions in Marinship park were dangerously bad; residents dealt with contaminated water, exposure to fiberglass from the nearby boat crushing operation, and cramped living conditions following the encampment’s relocation to the Marinship Park tennis courts. Numerous requests from the union for the city to intervene were ignored, and gradually residents got sick, injured, or intimidated and as a result, left the encampment. 

“The original account was maybe 40 to 45 people and dwindled down to maybe 30 to 35 when the move to Marinship Park took place,” Prince said. “A lot of people left because the conditions were so intolerable.” 

Sausalito hired Urban Alchemy (UA), a nonprofit organization operating in the Bay Area since 2018, to manage and provide security for the encampment. The organization is mired in controversy–articles by the Pacific Sun, the Frisc, and even google reviews of UA all point to a violent and mismanaged workforce, with unchecked power over encampment residents. 

UA also imposed unfairly harsh rules on encampment residents, such as the removal of any residents gone for more than seven days. In one instance, officers removed the belongings of a man who had gone on a trip. 

“He thought himself a human being and he had a right to go somewhere for a few days,” Prince said. “They kicked him out, they took his possessions, he filed a pro se suit and a judge ordered that he be put back in.” 

Despite complaints from the residents and the union, Sausalito intended to extend its contract with Urban Alchemy until the presiding judge ordered the organization’s removal. 

“It became clear that the city’s strategy was just to just keep individually kicking people out and closing the camp by attrition,” Prince said. “So we then insisted that it was time to come to the table and get the case resolved.” 

The settlement, reached Aug. 5, dictated the payment of $18,000 by the city to 30 eligible recipients, all residents or former residents of the encampment. The funds are to be given in a lump-sum payment to the union, which is then responsible for managing and distributing the money for each of the individual recipients. The union is required to provide a report to the city each month and to coordinate with a city-provided “qualified housing manager” – measures intended to ensure that the money is being used solely for housing arrangements. 

“The homeless themselves are perfectly capable of taking this financial assistance and making their own decisions about where the settlement could be spent,” Prince said. In the weeks after the settlement, recipients have put the money towards leases, mobile homes, and other housing apparatus. “[They’re] shattering that myth that you just can’t trust homeless people with money,” Prince said. 

The settlement does not address the constitutionality of the anti-camping ordinance, which remains in place. And now, because of the encampment’s closure, houseless residents of Sausalito that did not receive the funds will return to their original position before the initial lawsuit: sleeping on the streets wherever they can. “The next homeless person who comes to Sausalito [who is] threatened with arrest, misdemeanor conviction and citation, whatnot … guess what, we’re gonna challenge the ordinance all over again,” Prince said, discussing the ordinance. 

In a press release issued by the city, Mayor Janelle Kellman discussed the settlement and plans for Marinship Park. “This agreement will allow us to help folks restore their lives in a way that is far more compassionate and safer than the unfortunate circumstance of living outdoors,” she stated in the release. 

The mayor declined when asked for further comment by The Tam News, citing the confidentiality of the settlement—which, along with the original lawsuit, is on public record. Only the identities of the settlement recipients are confidential. 

According to the press release, Sausalito has already spent around $1.5 million in “unanticipated costs” in managing the encampment. “They could have housed every single [Marinship Park] resident in an apartment unit for two years,” Prince said. 

Instead of helping, he said, the city’s aim was the removal of the houseless community. “They’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer’s money to fight this relatively small group of homeless people,” Prince said. “And it seemed, unfortunately, that the majority of people in Sausalito were okay with that.” 

Despite heavy spending, it appeared to some that the city had no intention of settling. According to Prince, they had to be ordered to enter into negotiations with the union by Judge Edward Chen, the presiding judge. 

During settlement negotiations, the city refused to compromise on the closure date of the encampment on Aug. 15. “[That] was less than two weeks away, actually 10 days away [from the agreement] so there is no way, there is just no way that we’re going to be able to … get people into some kind of housing situation,” Prince said. 

Although the union asked numerous times for an extension, the city remained immovable. “I asked for two weeks, they refused. I asked for one week they refused. And so we then turned our attention to just getting people out of there, because the one thing we did not want to see was the spectacle of the police coming in,” Prince said.

Two days following the removal of the residents, trailers and catering tents of a filming crew had moved in across the street from the encampment into corporate buildings and parking lots at 2330 Marinship Way. Mayor Kellman admitted to the Pacific Sun that Sausalito had “known” since March that “The Last Thing He Told Me, an Apple+ miniseries starring Jennifer Garner, would be filming and setting up its base camp in Sausalito. Mayor Kellman insisted that the film production had no influence on the deadline. 

Nevertheless, due to the rushed deadline, the union was forced to temporarily house settlement recipients at expensive motels like the Muir Woods Lodge that charged what Prince called “exorbitant” rates. “For a person who has no credit history, who has no rental history, who doesn’t have ID … To get a place, to get an apartment? It’s nearly impossible,”  Prince explained. 

Around $20,000 of the settlement funds were spent on temporary housing in the weeks after the closure that would have otherwise gone to more sustainable and permanent housing for the recipients, he said. 

“They never disclosed to us the existence of this agreement,” Prince said. If the filming contract had indeed played a role in the city’s insistence on the deadline, he said the union could potentially seek damages for fraud in the inducement, a legal issue where one party is tricked or misled during contract negotiations. “If we had known [about the filming], and I’m not saying it’s a fact, but if it turns out that was a factor, that would have impacted … our negotiation position.” 

As of now, the union has sent evidence preservation letters, which are typically sent to potential defendants in an anticipated lawsuit, to both the city of Sausalito and the production company. The union asserted that it has no intention of creating an issue with the production company’s involvement, however.

Sausalito’s explanation for the closure date was their belief that Robbie Powelson, a union organizer and longtime member of the houseless community in Sausalito, was bringing other houseless people to the encampment in an attempt to expand it. “[He] had no intention of rounding people up. This would make no sense. Why bring people to Sausalito when the camp has been closed?” Prince said. 

“We’re talking about over $20,000, which came out of the individual shares of those entitled to the housing assistance,” Prince said. “That should come out of [the city’s] funds.” The production company paid the city upwards of $10,000 for commercial filming, parking, and public encroachment permits. 

An Aug. 26 update on the city website stated that Sausalito is now  “actively seeking funds from the State of California and the County of Marin to offset costs related to the encampment and the settlement agreement.” 

City Manager Chris Zapata could not be reached for comment on this request. 

“These cities are failing. They think they can criminalize the homeless, kick them out. I got news: it’s not gonna happen. More and more people are going to be facing housing crises, and they’re gonna end up on the street, a lot of them,” Prince said. 

According to CalMatters, a California nonprofit focusing on political policy, the number of people without stable housing has increased by at least 22,500 since 2019 to around 173,800 individuals at time of publishing. 

A study by the World Bank Group warns another global recession may be on the horizon for 2023 as a result of widespread inflation, meaning that unemployment rates, housing prices, and interest rates will all be on the rise. Because of this, the housing crisis, and the treatment of houseless people by their cities, will become increasingly relevant to California’s policymakers, communities, and at-risk families and individuals.

“These are Sausalito residents, people who in many cases lived a good chunk of their lives there, they rented apartments in the past, and paid rent, a lot of that went to property taxes, sales taxes, raised children, went to schools, they are part of the artistic community,” Prince said. “They are contributing members of the Sausalito community. They’re residents. They’re not just ‘the homeless.’”