San Rafael's homeless proposal: Will it cause even more encampments?

One Bay Area city's attempt to sort out the homeless encampment problem is drawing a lot of attention; not all of it is complimentary. Encampments could actually take up a lot more space. 

A law that has been proposed in San Rafael would completely change the face of homeless encampments. The diverse and upscale town council will soon vote on how to restrict homeless camps in public places.

If passed, a person living alone would be limited to a 10-by-10-foot space.  Places with two or more campers could occupy no more than 200 total square feet, regardless of their numbers.

Each space would have to be separated by 200 feet.  No site could be within 100 feet of a playground or within 10 feet of public utility equipment boxes. 

"This ordinance accepts that unfortunate reality that some homeless people are going to need to camp. That's far better than constantly doing sweeps and causing people to move because that's very traumatizing," said Ritter Center Director Mark Shotwell.

The non-profit Ritter Center is San Rafael's main homeless help organization.


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At a camp near downtown, there are about 45 people. Under the new rule. Ritter staff says the space would accommodate less than a dozen. 

"I think it will create, seven, eight, nine more camps in different places in the city," said Shotwell.

That would make delivering food, healthcare and other services much more difficult. 

"We help each other to the fullest. If someone doesn't have something, we give it up if we have it because it comes back to us when they have it," said camp resident Taylor, a woman who owns a small dog. "We have stuff just like anyone else. We have clothes. We have beds. We have more than that for the dog. We have a little yard, built with a fence show she can't get out," she said.

Even as a makeshift community, there is safety in numbers. 

"Most of the people know each other and sometimes, when stuff happens, it happens with people that's outside the camp," said camp visitor Landy Scott.

"There's guys that try to rape girls all the time.  But if we holler out, and we're so far apart, who's gonna hear us?" asks Taylor.

As with all towns, residents are putting as much pressure as they can on local governments to do something, anything meaningful to end homeless encampments and do it as quickly as possible. None want that more than the folks who must live here.