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May 21, 2022

Judge extends restraining order, allows levee encampment to remain

MONTEREY COUNTY—A federal magistrate on Monday extended a temporary restraining order stopping Monterey County from removing a group of homeless people from an encampment along the Pajaro River levee.

The decision by Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen allows dozens of people to remain along the waterway while she mulls placing a preliminary injunction on the removal by county officials.

It is unclear how long van Keulen will take to make a ruling. Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council, who is representing the homeless people, says it could take a “considerable period of time” until the case is settled or it goes to trial.

Among the issues that van Keulen considered on Monday, Prince says, was whether Monterey County had sufficient alternative shelter space to offer those displaced from the encampment and whether moving them and their possessions caused more harm than simply leaving them in place would have.

Several lost their possessions during a Nov. 18 cleanup by county officials and the sheriff’s department, Prince says. 

Immediately after the cleanup began, Prince filed an injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. 

“They are trying to piece things back together,” he said. “There has been a lot of harm, a lot of damage to a lot of people and property there. We’re going to prepare and keep moving forward.”

County officials have expressed concern about the harm to the waterway and the environmental degradation caused by the unsanctioned encampment. They also say that some of the residents have dug into the levee, which officials say could weaken the walls.

Whether van Keulen grants a preliminary injunction, or whether she tells the parties to work toward a compromise, a civil rights lawsuit against the county will still move forward, Prince said. 

“She is very much interested in seeing if the parties can work things out, and we’re willing to do that. But we need to have the county stop kicking people out and stop coming up with excuses as to why they are doing that,” he said.

The ultimate goal, Prince says, is for the county to use its resources to find permanent housing for the people who need it.

“I think that Monterey County has to accept that there is a real situation here,” he said. “More and more people are becoming homeless, and they are not going to solve this problem by kicking people from one place to the next.”

Monterey County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy John Thornburg said that the county is waiting on the final decision of the court.

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