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An ongoing debate about how to house Sausalito’s homeless population took a new turn last week when the city declared a state of emergency in the wake of a Feb. 9 explosion and fire at an encampment at Marinship Park.

A woman living at the encampment used a cigarette lighter to set two tents on fire, one of which contained a propane tank that exploded, according to police. Debra Ellen Hazelwood, 61, was arrested on suspicion of arson.

“This state of emergency is a clear signal to county leaders that our small town needs extra resources, including money and manpower, to deal with this crisis,” Sausalito Mayor Janelle Kellman said in a statement.

The mayor said the city has been working closely with Marin County officials and has repeatedly requested additional support from the county to help find permanent housing for unsheltered residents.

“This is costing an overwhelming amount of taxpayer dollars, and private landowners have incurred significant losses. We are committed to working collaboratively with the county to reach a long-term solution.”

Mayor Janelle Kellman

“While we appreciate the recent allocation of funds, it is not sufficient for the unique dynamic of our encampment, and we are asking for further help and support,” Mayor Kellman said. “This is costing an overwhelming amount of taxpayer dollars, and private landowners have incurred significant losses. We are committed to working collaboratively with the county to reach a long-term solution.”

The county is the primary recipient of state and federal housing funds, according to the mayor.

The emergency declaration, called a “proclamation of a local emergency,” was signed by City Manager Chris Zapata, who is also Sausalito’s Director of Emergency Services. The town’s city council will decide whether to formally ratify the proclamation at its regular meeting Tuesday, Feb. 15.

According to police, the explosion was heard throughout Sausalito. Firefighters led officers to the northwest side of the tennis courts to a tent containing a propane tank that had exploded.

Two tents were destroyed in the explosion, including Hazelwood’s tent, police said.

According to police, Hazelwood admitted to setting the fire.

Smoke and flames rise from the Marinship Park tennis courts on Feb. 9 after a woman set fire to a propane tank and sparked an explosion. (Photo courtesy of city of Sausalito)

An ongoing saga

It was less than a year ago that Sausalito found itself in court over the city’s effort to have the homeless encampment relocated to Marinship Park from Dunphy Park, about half a mile away, where tents had begun congregating in December 2020. Although neighbors complained about the growing encampment, city officials said their hands were tied by a federal law that prohibits the removal of homeless residents from public property unless a suitable alternative can be found.

Homeless advocates attempted to block the move to Marinship Park, arguing that a nearby boat crushing operation created airborne fiberglass particles, resulting in dangerous air quality for the campers.

But on May 26, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the air quality claim, allowing the relocation to take place. About 44 encampment residents were told in late June that they would have to move to Marinship Park, which the city had designated as a transitional housing location.

A city worker cleans up debris at the site of an explosion at the Marinship Park homeless encampment. (Photo courtesy of city of Sausalito)

Then-Mayor Jill Hoffman said at the time, “Members of the Sausalito City Council and our City staff are collaborating with other elected officials, as well as staff from Marin County and other cities across the county, to create opportunities and implement solutions.”

According to an update on the city’s website, Marinship Park was selected as a transitional camping location because it was larger and better able to support campers with its permanent restrooms and accessibility to mobile showers and other support services provided by the Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness. City staff chalked off camp sites in the grassy field, improved restrooms, provided garbage cans and installed a privacy fence.

In mid-November, following heavy storms, the city expanded the encampment onto the parking lot and tennis courts.

More information about the tent encampment and Sausalito’s ongoing efforts to find solutions can be found on the city’s website.

Bay City News Foundation editor Glenn Gehlke contributed to this story.