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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge approves moving homeless individuals from San Rafael encampment over fire risk

The Bay Area judge ruled in favor of the city, citing the risk of a catastrophic fire as long as people camp on Francisco Boulevard.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge is allowing the Bay Area city of San Rafael to relocate some homeless residents from Francisco Boulevard, where they had been camping, to another location along the Mahon Creek Path because of the risk of fire at the Francisco campsite.

San Rafael filed a motion for emergency relief on Wednesday after a mattress was set on fire near Marin Roofing, which is adjacent to a camp of 10 or 11 homeless individuals on Francisco Boulevard.

The fire spread along the edge of the building and came dangerously close to combustible materials. In its motion, the city argued that moving the campers from Francisco Boulevard to Mahon Creek Path was needed to prevent the risk of a catastrophic blaze occurring in the near future.

In October 2023, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen issued a preliminary injunction limiting how much the city could enforce an ordinance that restricted how big campsites along Mahon Creek Path could be after homeless residents sued the city.

However, the city argued Friday that the injunction applies only to homeless residents already living on the path, and that even if the injunction applied citywide, that the city has the authority to address imminent health and safety risks, such as a fire. 

Chen agreed with the city's argument in a brief, four-page ruling issued on Friday afternoon.

Chen wrote that there was a “serious question” as to whether the individuals camping on Francisco Boulevard were covered by his injunction. Chen also wrote that the balance of hardships and likelihood of irreparable injury from a fire persuaded him to grant the city emergency relief.

“Here, the city has substantiated that there is not an insignificant risk of fire at or near the Francisco encampment. There appears to have been more than one fire in the area,” Chen wrote. “Even if the campers were not responsible for any or all of the fires (the city does not attribute the most recent fire to the campers), that does not mean that there is no fire risk stemming from their occupation at or near the property line of the roofing business.”

Chen wrote that the city’s fire risk is exacerbated by the existence of “highly flammable materials” at Marin Roofing, such as propane tanks, and the close proximity of the camp to the Marin Roofing building.

As for the hardships, Chen wrote that it is not unreasonable to move the 10 or 11 individuals camping near Marin Roofing to an adjacent area on Mahon Creek Path, which is close by and has ample room for tents.

“Because the new city ordinance allows for campsites to be ten feet away from other campsites, it appears that the individuals living on Francisco can be accommodated in the Mahon Creek Path area, even if a ten-foot setback is required from private property,” Chen wrote. “Indeed, with the accommodations promised by the city as to relocation and the protections accorded herein, it is questionable whether there is any irreparable injury facing the Francisco campers.”

Chen’s ruling is conditioned on there being enough space at Mahon Creek Path so as to not violate the current San Rafael ordinance, which allows 400-square-foot encampments, housing up to four people and a 100-foot buffer between campsites.

The city may not relocate any of the people until noon on Tuesday, June 18, Chen wrote, so that they have sufficient time to prepare to move. The ruling is also conditioned on the city providing tents to any individuals who need one because of the relocation, and the city must also help move the individuals to the Mahon Creek Path area.

The city is also not permitted to destroy any of the structures on Francisco Boulevard, Chen wrote, because the people who reside in the structures have appealed abatement orders that ruled the structures were in violation of the building code. A hearing on those appeals is scheduled for June 25.

The city may remove any flammable materials from the encampment area, however, Chen wrote.

Lawyers for the city of San Rafael and a lawyer representing the homeless individuals did not respond to requests for comment before publication.

Categories / Courts, Homelessness, Regional

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