Phoenix to Start Clearing Sprawling Downtown Homeless Encampment
Phoenix officials will begin clearing one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments this week in a downtown area known as the Zone, where neighbors and business owners have filed a lawsuit calling the tent community “a great humanitarian crisis” because of open drug use, violence and property damage.
The effort comes after a preliminary injunction in late March ordered Phoenix to clean up the area.
City officials said they plan to remove tents, block by block, starting on Wednesday. Outreach workers will first offer residents of the encampment other housing options, such as at homeless shelters or on vacant land that the city will designate for camping. Once the city clears a block, it will prevent people from returning to camp there.
Rachel Milne, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, said in a statement that her staff was “accelerating existing plans” but did not reference the court order.
Why It Matters
The Zone has become a flashpoint in a national debate over how to address the growth of street encampments where residents live in deep poverty and some face mental health challenges or fentanyl addiction.
“This isn’t a life. It’s an existence,” Shina Sepulveda, who is homeless and lives in the Zone, told The New York Times recently.
A defining 2018 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Martin v. Boise, found that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go. City leaders across the West have grappled with how to handle homeless camps when they do not have enough space at shelters or in supportive housing.
Patience has worn thin in some communities with significant homeless populations, and residents and business owners have asked their city officials to do more to move people off the streets.
The Maricopa County injunction provides one possible path for other communities. However, the issue continues to be litigated from all sides, including lawyers who argue that cities cannot remove encampments because they have still done too little to provide housing. A federal judge reiterated that position last month when San Francisco sought to clear tents from its Tenderloin neighborhood.
The number of unsheltered Phoenix residents has risen dramatically, from 771 in 2014 to 3,096 in 2022, according to the city. As many as 1,100 people have slept outdoors in the Zone on a given night.
Last year, a group of residents and business owners, including the proprietors of a sandwich shop near the encampment whose struggles were detailed by The Times, sued Phoenix and asked the city to clean up the area.
The city contended that it had discretion over how to address homelessness, including how best to move people out of camps.
In late March, Judge Scott Blaney of Maricopa County Superior Court found that the city had, in essence, stopped enforcing laws in the Zone and the area had become a dangerous “public nuisance.” He ordered the city to remove tents and other makeshift structures from sidewalks, as well as clear human waste and trash, among other requirements.
Stephen Tully, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that his clients filed suit only after they had spent years trying to work with the city to keep homeless people from blocking business entrances and streets, openly using drugs and defecating on their property.
“The city is finally saying the right things, but we wait,” Mr. Tully said Monday.
Complicating matters, the city in December tentatively settled a separate federal lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, by agreeing not to enforce bans on sleeping or camping outside.
Kristin Couturier, a Phoenix spokeswoman, said in a text message that the city’s legal team did not see “a direct conflict between the two cases.” She did not elaborate why.
One possible reason the lawsuits could be reconciled, Mr. Tully said, was that the city had been ordered by Judge Blaney to enforce laws against public nuisances, such as drug-dealing and public urination, not sleeping in public.
A trial in the Maricopa County case is set for July. That’s also when the city will have to show it has complied with the court’s order.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research. Jack Healy contributed reporting.
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