The Zone in downtown Phoenix is home to one of the largest homeless encampments in the country, and its removal is set to begin this week. The Zone’s neighbours and business owners have filed a lawsuit against the city, calling the tent community “a great humanitarian crisis” due to its open drug use, violence, and destruction of private property.
Phoenix was compelled to clean up the area in a preliminary injunction issued at the end of March, prompting this endeavour.
On Wednesday, city authorities announced they will begin systematically removing tents from the streets. Before evicting anybody from the encampment, outreach staff will provide alternative housing alternatives including homeless shelters or city-designated camping areas. When the city clears a block, no one will be allowed to camp there again.
The head of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, Rachel Milne, issued a statement in which she stated her team was “accelerating existing plans” but made no mention of the court ruling.
The Zone is at the centre of a national discussion over how to deal with the proliferation of homeless encampments, where many people are living in extreme poverty and struggle with mental illness or opioid addiction.
What I’m living right now doesn’t qualify as a life. The Zone is “an existence,” Shina Sepulveda, a homeless woman who lives there, recently told The New York Times.
The landmark case Martin v. Boise, decided in 2018 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, held that persons cannot be criminally prosecuted for sleeping outside due to a lack of alternative shelter. When there isn’t enough room in shelters or in supportive housing, city authorities in the West have struggled with what to do about homeless encampments.
Some cities with large homeless populations have seen their inhabitants’ and business owners’ patience wear thin, prompting them to demand greater action from local authorities.
The injunction in Maricopa County shows one way forward for other areas. Lawyers on both sides of the issue continue to dispute in court, with some claiming that communities haven’t done enough to offer homes, and hence have no right to evict encampments. Last month, when San Francisco attempted to remove tents from its Tenderloin neighbourhood, a federal court reaffirmed this view.
According to the city, the number of homeless people in Phoenix will increase from 771 in 2014 to 3,096 in 2022. On any one night, the Zone has seen upwards of 1,100 individuals sleeping outside.
The owners of a sandwich restaurant located near the encampment, whose plight was chronicled in The Times, were among a group of citizens and business owners who sued the city of Phoenix last year, demanding that it clean up the area.
The city said it could decide for itself how best to deal with homelessness, including clearing away encampments.
After years of attempting to cooperate with the city to prevent homeless persons from obstructing business entrances and streets, publicly taking drugs, and defecating on their property, the plaintiffs finally filed suit, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Tully.
A related federal lawsuit initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union was filed in December, and the city has agreed in principle to not enforce restrictions on sleeping or camping outdoors as part of that settlement.
City of Phoenix spokeswoman Kristin Couturier said that the city’s legal staff did not perceive “a direct conflict between the two cases.” She gave no more explanation.
Mr. Tully speculated that the cases may be settled amicably since Judge Blaney had instructed the city to focus on enforcing laws against public nuisances like drug sales and public urination rather than public sleeping.