The notices went out about a month before “Big Week” and the California Rodeo Salinas, and they were to the point: There’s no overnight camping allowed in Sherwood Park. A homeless community had sprung up there, and the notices warned that people’s gear – including tents, shopping carts, tarps and the other belongings of the unsheltered life – would be removed by the city if the owners didn’t remove it first.
And on July 10, six days before the start of the rodeo, the city brought in work crews and trucks and swept the park clean.
“The city announced the prohibition so they could have VIP parking for special guests of the rodeo,” says Anthony Prince, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in defending the homeless. “The people that they kicked out of the park, now they’re all sleeping on the sidewalks.”
One of those people, Rita Acosta, decided to take action. On July 9, she went to Monterey County Superior Court and filed for a temporary restraining order against City Manager Ray Corpuz on behalf of all residents of Sherwood Park. In her request, Acosta asked a judge to prevent the city, Salinas police and city contractors from implementing the sweep and prevent them from using such actions as a means to seize and destroy people’s personal property. Acosta also asked a judge to order the city to produce a list of city-owned or controlled buildings – including commercial and industrial properties – where homeless people displaced from Sherwood Park could be relocated.
The restraining order was denied, but a hearing was still set for Aug. 29, and then rescheduled for Sept. 13 after Judge Vanessa Vallarta, who previously was the city attorney for Salinas, recused herself due to the conflict.
But in the midst of the legal maneuvering, the city filed an anti-SLAPP motion against Acosta, arguing that her request for a restraining order violates Corpuz’s right to free speech.
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and in Corpuz’s anti-SLAPP motion, he’s asking a judge to order Acosta to pay the city’s attorney fees, which, as of Aug. 22, Assistant City Attorney Michael Mutalipassi pegged at $4,660.
“The city gets a lot of frivolous lawsuits and this is one of them,” Mutalipassi says. “The condition of the park was pretty bad, especially as it related to finding (hypodermic) needles near where children play.”
Prince, who in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the city when it enacted an ordinance allowing officials to remove people’s belongings and shelters from the Chinatown area, says the encampment at Sherwood had been well-policed and self-policed by the homeless living there. Acosta was named as a plaintiff in that federal suit, which a judge dismissed in 2016, ruling the city acted lawfully.
Of the anti-SLAPP motion, Prince says, “It’s ridiculous. They’re using it against public participation and it’s a complete perversion of the statute. This was a straightforward effort to restrain the city from expelling people from the park and this was a perfectly acceptable way for us to do this.”