Natalie Hanson

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge is weighing whether to temporarily prevent a San Francisco Bay Area city from moving homeless people who camp in public parks.

Attorneys for the city of San Rafael on Monday asked U.S. Senior District Judge Edward Chen to rule against a preliminary injunction motion brought by unhoused people who sued the city in August claiming that its anti-camping ordinances are violating their rights.

Some of the plaintiffs reside at an encampment referred to as Camp Integrity along Mahon Creek Path.

Officials argue that larger encampments pose a fire risk and biohazard issues such as used needles pose public safety risks. San Rafael ordinances limit campers to a 10 by 10-foot space, kept more than 200 feet away from one another. Violators can face a $500 fine and six months in jail.

Jeffrey Schonberg, a medical anthropologist, testified for the plaintiffs that people often camp in groups for safety. For example, during medical overdose emergencies, camping together increases the likelihood that someone will be around to supply Narcan treatments or call for help.

When the city’s counsel accused him of not being an expert, Schonberg said he spent a year in Oakland’s former Wood Street encampment community observing how unhoused people help each other. He called it “informal social capital,” when people access resources in unofficial ways, such as by sharing food.

“They want to have that relationship of reciprocal support,” he said. “There was no question that they were providing each other with services. It’s that informal economy that people rely on within encampments in order to support each other.”

When Chen asked about overdose rates among people both inside and outside encampments, Schonberg quoted an article which found up to 24% more deaths occurred among people who inject addictive substances and are routinely involuntarily displaced by officials.

Chen asked city officials if 100 square feet of camping space per person is reasonable, and how they determined if the proposed spaces for camping are habitable for humans, per the 2019 landmark case Martin v. Boise. In that case the Ninth Circuit held that a jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for sitting, lying, or sleeping in public if there is a greater number of homeless people than the number of available beds in shelters in the jurisdiction.

“Is there some minimum size for (camping), for people to provide that mutual protection?” Chen asked.

City officials made it clear that they do not want an officially sanctioned camping area, after having moved many people to a space under Highway 101 in 2021, which generated controversy due to its conditions.

Michael von Loewenfeldt, counsel for the city, said since the lawsuit was filed encampments have grown and some people erected shelters he described as “fire traps.”

“If you enact an injunction, we have to be able to enforce our fire code,” he told Chen.

The city’s Fire Chief Darin White said he sees a significant fire risk at Camp Integrity due to tents being grouped together close to flammable camping equipment.

Under plaintiffs’ attorney Anthony Prince’s questioning, White said that the same fire risks are possible whether tents are close together or far apart. Prince pointed out that other cities in Marin County, such as Sausalito, sanctioned spaces where tents could be grouped together in response to litigation.

“The larger the camp, the larger the risk,” White told him.

San Rafael Police Department’s mental health liaison, Lynn Murphy, agreed. She said about 61 tents are part of Camp Integrity and pointed out in photographs of the camp where people broke into lampposts to plug in power cords, or left furniture around tents.

“There’s a sense of lawlessness," she said.

She also said that infections like staph spread quickly at dense encampments where people are more likely to come into contact with dirty bedding, and that at least one plaintiff has refused to move into a shelter due to having a dog.

When Chen said the city’s ordinance could contribute to people being confused about where they can go, Murphy said: “People can camp outside of San Rafael as well.”

The judge did not indicate which way he may rule and directed both parties to return to court to continue arguments Tuesday morning.

He granted a temporary restraining order request on Aug. 16 and in September extended it to expire Monday.