Jason Sarris, part of San Marin class of 1987 created the homeless encampment at Mcneer Park near the Novato public library in March of 2020. Sarris claimed that he could no longer afford to live in Novato, his place of occupation, and became homeless in 2012. The hardships of the pandemic, rising rent rates, and overall cost to live in Marin County, one of the wealthiest counties in California brought about Novato’s tent city; a town within a town. Nationwide, there are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness, which is equivalent to 2% of the world’s population. Community volunteers identified 708 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Novato, (Novato.org).
“We are so grateful to have so much support from the community,” Sarris said. “[Mcneer encampment] is a place of sanction and a hub for help to anyone.”
The Novato community has been essential in times of distress according to Michelangelo Montez, who lives at the Mcneer encampment. The Novato community started a Facebook page on January 18th called “Novato in the Know” to raise awareness toward the sanitation and hygiene struggles the Mcneer encampment was facing. The platform encouraged the City of Novato to lend port-a-potties to the encampment as well as various personal hygiene products. Citizens also donated an abundant supply of canned goods, bottled waters, and cooking equipment.
“I owe it all to Jason, he is our king, all hail Jason,” Michelangelo Montez said.
Montez recently became homeless after losing his job at body kinetics and has lived at the Mcneer encampment for three months. Montez has been in construction for 23 years, but could no longer afford to live in Novato. Montez and Sarris both explained their urgency to work and are currently job searching, for themselves and for their fellow unhoused individuals.
“We all wake up at around eight or nine, then one of us will cook for all of us, then we clean up and work on our own projects,” Montez said.
The Mcneer homeless encampment is currently estimated to have over 35 inhabitants, growing more each day.
Mcneer park has caught the attention of Novato officials and the police department, including Sergeant Alan Bates who leads the city’s homelessness response team.
“There has been a significant response from the public, local citizens, and nearby businesses complaining about this homeless encampment,” Bates said.
One of the major questions posed by citizens is the legality of camping on public property. Bates explained that camping on public property is illegal in the state of California.
“However in the special circumstances of the pandemic, if there are no alternatives then they are not criminalized,” Bates said.
Bates referred to the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines that state the breaking up of camps should be avoided in order to decrease the spread of Covid-19.
Homeward Bound of Marin, located on Hamilton Parkway in Novato provides refugee, support, and shelter for unhoused individuals.
“Our primary goal is to help the homeless in Marin County,” director of housing and operations of Homeward Bound LaSaunda Tate said. “We operate Marin County’s only family and adult shelters with transitional,supportive as well as permanent housing programs.”
Homeward Bound of Marin hosts 1,000 individuals and families in need, but due to Covid-19, the availability was almost cut in half. Homeward Bound offers different types of support and housing. Due to the limited housing space at Homeward Bound, some people are left on the streets or chose to live outside, like the Mcneer park encampment.
“With the number of families we serve every year, I am sure at some point we provided shelter or housing to San Marin high school families,” Tate said. “In Marin, if you make less than ninety-four thousand dollars per year, you are considered poor.”
The average affordable monthly apartment cost in Novato is $1,083 dollars, with a limited amount of low income housing available. This high rent cost indicates that some lower-paying essential/nonessential workers cannot support themselves and their families to live in Marin. The City of Novato also offers a below market rate housing rental program (BMR) for those with income of under $30,000 dollars.
“We believe the best solution would be affordable residency, like tiny homes or more apartments,” Sarris and Montez said.
Tiny homes have grown in popularity over the last several years because people are choosing to consolidate out of lack of affordability. A tiny home in California costs an average of $30,000 to $60,000 dollars, with a low of $8,000 dollars, and a high of $100,000. Compared to Novato’s average home price of one million dollars, tiny homes are significantly more affordable.
“Marin needs more affordable housing, the solution to homelessness is to put them in homes they can afford,” Tate said.
The best solution seems to be more affordable housing to be built and available in Novato and Marin. A community needs to be able to support and sustain all people regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity.
“The great town of Novato needs a lot of improvements and changes,” Sarris said.
The Mcneer homeless encampment beside the Novato public library currently holds over 35 unhoused individuals with over 25 tents lining the property. Novato citizens offer their support to these individuals.