A resident of the city-sanctioned homeless camp under Highway 101 in San Rafael is suing the city and Caltrans alleging that exposure to freeway noise and pollution has led to hearing loss and risk of illness.
The class-action lawsuit cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states the World Health Organization recommends that noise exposure levels should not exceed 70 decibels over a 24-hour period and 85 decibels over a one-hour period to avoid hearing impairment. The CDC also says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends workers should use hearing protection when exposed to 90 decibels or higher during an eight-hour work day.
The suit cites a CDC report that links living in proximity to a major road or highway with health effects such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory symptoms and other diseases.
The plaintiff, James Hellard, 49, alleges that the city has been “forcing” him to live under the overpass for the past two years because “living anywhere else means my survival gear will be confiscated.”
Using a sound meter app on his cellphone, he recorded vehicle noise from the highway above measuring at 90 decibels and higher, the suit says.
“I am currently suffering permanent hearing loss and am inhaling dangerous amounts of freeway related gasoline exhaust due to defendants willful and wanton disregard for my welfare,” the suit says.
Hellard seeks monetary relief for physical and emotional damages and property loss, as well as the ability to camp elsewhere without risk of having his belongings confiscated, according to the suit. The suit also asks that campers receive adequate hygiene amenities, earplugs and N-95 masks, among other provisions.
In an interview, Hellard said his ears ring because of the freeway noise and that he has noticed that a film that covers the surfaces of the camp area, and he believes it to be from exhaust. He complained of pests, including rats, and said there is no running water and the handwashing stations provided are not refilled with water and soap often enough.
“Our lives are at risk,” he said.
Robbie Powelson, a homeless activist assisting Hellard and other residents, described the site as an “internment camp” and accused officials of negligence and false imprisonment.
“The legal community needs rise up to represent victims so they can receive just compensation and hold their persecutors accountable in a class-action lawsuit,” Powelson said.
Hellard filed the petition for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in US District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday. A hearing has been set for April 22.
Cheryl Chambers, deputy district director of external affairs for Caltrans, declined to comment.
The suit also names San Rafael police mental health liaison Lynn Murphy and police Sgt. Carl Huber. Requests for comment were forwarded to San Rafael police Lt. Dan Fink, who said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
However, Fink said the city collaborated with stakeholders to ensure the homeless campers had access to the services they need.
Camps of homeless people have become entrenched in a number of Bay Area cities, including Novato and Sausalito, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal health guidelines advise against clearing camps, and in some instances courts intervened to bar jurisdictions from doing so. Novato and Sausalito both remain under court orders not to shut down their camps.
In June, the San Rafael City Council approved a $260,000 allocation to work with Marin County to hire more case workers to aid homeless people.
The city-sanctioned camp was established in July on Caltrans property at the freeway viaduct. The area was set up to provide security, restrooms, handwashing stations, garbage disposal, regular service referrals and other amenities, according to the city. At that time, homeless campers in other areas were relocated to the site, which he city calls a “service support area.”
In a July interview with the Independent Journal about the city camp, Murphy said, “Nobody was forced, this was all done by choice. Most people were very eager to get into the site.”
The City Council also voted unanimously that month to ban camping in Boyd Park and in city garages due to fire risk.
Last month, the state announced it will grant $522,000 to San Rafael for expenses related to its camp. The county also planned to provide $166,000 to San Rafael through a matching funds program. The funding was said to cover 24-hour security and another case worker.
The city has spent $346,852 to staff and outfit the camp, Fink said. Thirty-one people live there, he said.
The campers are provided with case managers, a catered meal weekly, spiritual advisers, a mobile medical clinic, COVID-19 vaccinations and testing, animal care for those with pets, job opportunities through the Downtown Streets Team, library services and visits with Spahr Center staff, who offer LGBTQ+ support services.
The police department does not assign officers to the camp and officers only respond to calls for service, Fink said.
“We’re very proud of the support that we’re able to provide at the services support area for the individuals in need,” Fink said. “We’ll always continue to work individuals experiencing homelessness so that we can help provide them with any resources and options that they need through our city partners.”