False Choices and Familiar Stories in a California Homeless Encampment


To the untrained, or perhaps even weary, eye, every homeless encampment in California looks the same. The colors of the tents, which range from safety oranges to forest greens and the royal blues of the tarps that keep out the rain, all seem to fade together into an even mix of browns and grays. The effect is almost entirely psychological—if you took the same tent and put it in a campground, its colors would present themselves again. I suppose this is what people might call “desensitization.”

Something similar could be said about American poverty stories, which vary wildly in quality but not so much in form. Some brave, unblinking reporter shows you how the other half lives, often by following a central, sympathetic character—maybe a precocious child who deserves better. You might come away from the story with a greater awareness of the suffering that takes place right under your nose, but also a sense that you’ve heard this one before.

For the past two years, I’ve written quite a bit about homelessness. Starting out, my intentions weren’t too different from those of most journalists: people were dying in horrific conditions, and I felt like it was my duty to let as many people know as possible. But it’s recently become quite clear to me that raising awareness, especially when it comes to homelessness on the West Coast, is mostly pointless. Everyone is well aware of the tent encampments that have sprung up beneath freeways, in parks, and on sidewalks; everyone has felt the rising cost of rent, and seen the displacement of their neighbors. Most can do the math to figure out how a lot of these homeless people got to where they are. Housing and homelessness are the two most pressing political issues in California, and nearly every politician from San Diego to Eureka have made them a priority. At the state level, billions of dollars have been spent on a raft of policy initiatives. Yet none of this activity has made a visible enough dent in the encampments to convince the public that things are getting better.

All this presents a narrative problem: How do you tell the story of the biggest crisis on the West Coast when every typical journalistic avenue, whether it’s awareness-raising, political theatre, or even the sort of fantastical solutions-based wonk stuff, seems to have run its course?

I ask these questions as a way to introduce myself and this column. I will be writing regularly about a wide range of topics, but my hope is to tie the vast majority of my work around moments when the usual stories do not quite fit the reality they are trying to describe. It has occurred to me while covering homelessness that changes in attitude won’t lead to resolutions, and that our opportunities for meaningful change are often constrained to decisions that seem inconsequential. This, I believe, is not only true of the homelessness crisis in California but also of many seemingly trenchant problems in this country, from income and education inequality to disparities in the criminal-justice system and the despair that many young people feel about the diminishing opportunities for their generation. My hope is to open up these issues and knock around a bit in the gears. The job, then, isn’t that of a columnist who might bring you the news in bold strokes but, rather, one of a tinkerer, who takes bits of information and makes a case for why something—a system, a process, a narrative—has stopped working.

The San Rafael Service Support Area (S.S.A.) opened in July, 2021, in Marin County, directly under a busy stretch of the 101 freeway that is just about eleven miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At first glance, the site looked a lot like the others. Little details did stick out of the murk—one of the improvised structures, for example, was made out of a repurposed banner for the United States Olympic snowboarding team. And, if you stood right outside the chain-link fence that separates the site from the sidewalk, you could see the blunt peak of Mount Tamalpais and the dotting of multimillion-dollar homes in its foothills. But this irony, if it’s even worth calling it that, wasn’t particularly unusual. The immediate contrast between the squalor of the camps and the extreme wealth and natural beauty of the state is just what California looks like these days.

What distinguished the S.S.A. from many other homeless encampments is that it involved no fewer than four government agencies—the city of San Rafael, the county of Marin, the California Highway Patrol, and Caltrans, the state’s department of transportation. Cities throughout California have set up a variety of places like this one, from tiny-home villages to so-called Safe Sleep sites—designated spaces where the homeless are allowed to pitch a tent. The reasons why a municipality would want to build its own encampment are pretty simple: keeping homeless people in one place means that they won’t spread out to parks and sidewalks and underpasses throughout the city. Government-run encampments also allow service providers, whether through the city’s workers, county health departments, or third-party nonprofits, to stay in contact with people who do not have a permanent address. Most importantly, these sites are, in theory, transitional: residents say they were told by organizers that if they stayed inside the fence they would be given a path to permanent housing.

During my first visit to the encampment this past summer, there wasn’t much optimism among the residents, many of whom referred to themselves as “internees,” that permanent housing was on the horizon. Each one talked in the bureaucratic language of homelessness—a mix of references to social workers, probation officers, legal jargon, and the police. In an improvised living space cordoned off by a maze of tarps and strung-up rugs, I talked to James Hellard, a forty-nine-year-old veteran of the homelessness system. Hellard told me that he had been living in his car during COVID and trying to respect shelter-in-place laws, but police impounded his vehicle after he failed to turn in registration on time. “They forced me into a homelessness situation when nobody’s supposed to be getting six feet from nobody and put my life in danger,” he said. “And then they put my life more in danger by sticking me under this freeway.” (The city claimed he was already living in the area that would become the S.S.A., but Heller has consistently denied this.)

The conditions at the San Rafael S.S.A. were drastically worse than other government-run temporary sites I’ve visited throughout California: the plumbing came in the form of two porta-potties; the running water was the type of beat-up handwashing station you find at music festivals or county fairs. After only an hour or so at the S.S.A., I could feel the pollution from the cars in my eyes and in my lungs. Other sites throughout the state have not only structures where people can store their belongings and lock their doors but also full bathrooms, electricity, and managers who stay on-site and connect people with services they need. The San Rafael S.S.A., by contrast, not only was underneath a busy freeway but also sat next to a fetid drainage ditch that was home to rats “the size of woodchucks.” In March, 2022, Hellard filed a lawsuit that later became a class-action suit, claiming the noise and pollution from the freeway were harming his health. The lawsuit was dismissed. The city pointed out that nobody had been forced to live at the S.S.A., and that the residents were there by choice.

The city, of course, was technically correct. Residents of the S.S.A. were free to leave at any time—so long as they were prepared to leave San Rafael or Marin County altogether. The city council banned camping in a local park and in parking garages just days after the opening of the S.S.A.; the people who were cleared out of the park were told they could move to the newly opened encampment or risk arrest or citation by remaining in the prohibited spaces. Nearly three-quarters of the chronically homeless population in Marin were either born or raised there; they have family members, friends, and support networks that they cannot simply leave behind. In reality, the choices being offered to San Rafael’s homeless population weren’t choices at all.

California’s official position on homelessness is an approach called Housing First, which, according to the state’s Housing and Community Development department, means that “anyone experiencing homelessness should be connected to a permanent home as quickly as possible, and programs should remove barriers to accessing the housing, like requirements for sobriety or absence of criminal history.” This approach, though pragmatic and compassionate, has one problem: the pipelines from the street to a stable home are clogged, which means that many homeless people bounce around from the streets to shelters and back again—an exhausting and dispiriting process that leads many to simply give up on the system altogether.

Housing-supply numbers are difficult to nail down, but here’s some quick, relevant math: Marin County, according to the most recent Point-in-Time count, which is California’s version of a census for the homeless, has eleven hundred and twenty-one unhoused residents. According to Lynn Murphy, the mental-health liaison for the San Rafael Police Department, Marin County puts, on average, twelve people into permanent supportive housing per month, which marks a doubling of the pre-pandemic rate. Despite all the funding coming in from the state, the political pressure to get people off the streets, and dozens of tireless employees trying to find apartments, chronic homelessness went up by 10.5 per cent between 2019 and 2022. Family homelessness, which is directly connected to evictions and rising rents, went up thirty-five per cent in the same time period. If not one more person in Marin County fell into homelessness from this moment forward, it would take nearly eight years to house the eleven hundred and twenty-one at the current rate.

Many of the residents I spoke to at the S.S.A. felt like they had been lured in through a series of false promises, whether of permanent housing, dedicated case workers, or privacy. Once admitted, they felt like they couldn’t leave, for fear of losing their place in line for permanent housing, getting arrested, or even being expelled from the county. In late July, a San Rafael police officer picked up a homeless person who had threatened a security guard at a mall, drove him across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, and left him there. The footage of a clearly marked San Rafael police vehicle dropping off a mentally ill man was captured by a San Francisco resident, prompting an investigation from the San Francisco city attorney’s office. The San Rafael Police Department apologized, and first said that the man had asked to be dropped off in San Francisco. But, a few days later, a spokesperson for the police department clarified that it had been the officer’s idea.

For many residents of the camp, the officer’s actions confirmed a suspicion that they had held for months: the S.S.A. wasn’t much more than a holding pen purposefully designed to make them want to leave San Rafael altogether. The poor conditions, they believed, were by design. “What do you do when you put animals in a cage?” Jonathan Nicoll, a resident of the S.S.A., asked me. “They try to kill each other. And that’s what they’re trying to do here.”

The political news cycle around homelessness often goes something like this: the immense public pressure to get rid of unsightly encampments knocks up against a tiny supply of affordable housing and the unfortunate reality that many of the existing beds are in congregate shelters—which means that, even under conditions where shelter beds are available, many homeless people would rather take their chances on the streets. In response, forward-thinking cities have set up temporary sites, like tiny-home villages or the San Rafael S.S.A. But they also have little idea what “temporary” actually means when there’s almost no permanent place for the sheltered to go. These spaces are also subject to intense public scrutiny and, sometimes, to limited patience on the part of government agencies and elected officials.

A handful of officers from the California Highway Patrol arrived at the S.S.A. in early September to shut the encampment down. Caltrans, which owns the land the site was on, had been pushing for a closure for months, but had been held up by legal actions filed by residents who argued that they had nowhere else to go and would almost certainly be cited or arrested if they did not leave the city. Ultimately, the city of San Rafael said it had to honor its commitment to Caltrans that the site would be temporary. On the day of the sweep, most of the officers aimlessly stood around, occasionally helping a resident carry their belongings out to the sidewalk. Nobody, whether the social workers on-site or the residents themselves, could really tell me where everyone would go.

The residents of the camp mostly seemed angrily resigned to their fate as they packed up clothes, bicycle parts, guitars, and food and water bowls for their pets. Outside the fence, Gabriel Avilez, a fifty-seven-year-old who said he had been homeless for forty years, sat with his things, which included a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge. He said he had been at the S.S.A. from the day it opened, and had not been able to get any traction in his bid for permanent housing. He didn’t know where he was going to stay that night. “If they’re going to arrest me, it’s O.K.,” he said. “I have nowhere to go. I can’t do nothing.”


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