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San Rafael demolished its largest homeless encampment last week and displaced residents were offered the option to move into a new, fenced area a few blocks away.

The encampment, located under the U.S Highway 101 viaduct owned by Caltrans, between Third and Fourth streets, started with a handful of people in the beginning of the pandemic, around the time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned cities to not clear out encampments in fear of greater COVID-19 spread.

As the community has grown, city officials, service organizations and Caltrans have been working together to try to pair the evictions with services, eventually providing what the city on July 6 announced as a “service support area.” In the new location, residents have access to water, bathrooms, new tents, cots and sleeping bags, charging stations and 24-hour security.

It has taken months of planning, not only because the space is located in the crossroads of private and state-owned property, but also because of COVID-19 guidelines and legal roadblocks.

“Since it first emerged, the 101 viaduct encampment has been a top priority for the City,” reads a March 11 blog post on the city’s website. “We are doing everything we possibly can to responsibly and compassionately address this growing site, and we sincerely appreciate the community’s patience and support as we work through these extremely challenging issues.”

Obstacles to relocation

The city said one challenge to clearing the camp is Martin v. Boise, a federal appeals court ruling that imposing criminal penalties for homeless people sleeping outside from lack of shelter is unconstitutional. In 2019, a group of cities, including San Rafael, appealed the ruling “to gain more clarification,” saying informal living arrangements can become community spaces not just for sleep.

“Are encampments — which essentially become permanent structures, a place for gathering during waking hours, and a location for storage and other personal belongings — the same thing as sleep?” the blog post reads.

With the camp now cleared, the next goal is to keep unhoused residents in a consolidated space temporarily as the city moves them into permanent housing.

“There’s going to be some emergency housing vouchers that are going to come out. And for a lot of the people that are already in the viaduct right now, we have a plan set to get them housed in place. This just helps get them there quicker.”

Officer Kailtin Maley, San Rafael Police Department

The initiative isn’t only met with optimism, however. The Marin County Chapter of the California Homeless Union questions if the fenced areas are more like “internment camps” than resources, especially considering the heavy police involvement in the project.

The same day as the demolition, the City Council also voted to ban camping in Boyd Park and city parking garages. Limited spaces for unhoused people to turn to feels like they only have the option of being terrorized on the streets or “interned,” the organization said.

“That’s the reason so many people were under the overpass — Caltrans is more lenient because they have been sued many times for illegal evictions of campers,” the organization said in a statement. “With the new resolution, there will be even fewer safer places to exist.”

Police Officer Kailtin Maley said that 28 residents made their way into the new area, with “very few” who refused to go.

“There’s going to be some emergency housing vouchers that are going to come out,” said Maley. “And for a lot of the people that are already in the viaduct right now, we have a plan set to get them housed in place. This just helps get them there quicker.”

A temporary solution

The San Rafael City Council allocated $1.3 million in funding to purchase 44 units of supportive housing in November and added another $260,000 to increase social services in June. The city has also housed over 240 residents since 2017.

Lynn Murphy, mental health outreach liaison for the San Rafael Police Department, said that this temporary service area shouldn’t last more than six months if all goes according to plan. Within the first 48 hours of the new area, Murphy said she already saw three people move into housing.

Murphy spends much of her time interacting with the unhoused residents of San Rafael to build trusting relationships and help them pursue permanent housing. She and others let the residents know about the clearing out weeks prior, and many people moved out of the viaduct encampment even before the eviction day.

“Developing credibility with people so that they know that although I work for the Police Department, they see me as a real ally,” Murphy said. “When I say we really want to help you out, they trust that.”

But the transition into housing varies vastly. For some, it takes two weeks, and for others, two years. Securing adequate identification, expunging criminal record logs and clearing credit debts can be just a few hurdles in the process.

One example: Murphy has seen people get held up for months because of student loans from decades ago. Every case is something different, she says.

“You might think they’re going to be a slam dunk, and then something comes out of the blue,” Murphy said.

Not to mention that many people are moving from camp to camp and are hard to keep track of. The hope is that with the new encampment grounds, case managers can know where to find them.

“Having people in one spot where it’s easy to find them, makes the process go a lot quicker,” Murphy said.

City resources to receive housing can be found at 415-473-INFO (4636).