'Nobody knows where they’ll go': Future of Phoenix homeless camp unclear after court order

·6 min read
Madison Street is cleaned by a street sweeper between 12th and 13th avenues on Dec. 16, 2022, during Phoenix's enhanced cleanup of the area.

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Unhoused people living in Phoenix's largest homeless encampment, nearby property owners and homeless service providers had varying reactions on Tuesday to a judicial order demanding the city remove tents from public property in "The Zone," as the camp is called.

But they all had one big question in common: What happens next?

Many unhoused people living there were upset with the Maricopa County Superior Court decision and worried about where they will go if forced to leave.

Meanwhile, nearby business owners applauded the ruling as a step toward ending conduct they say is wreaking havoc on their properties and livelihoods. But some also questioned whether the city would appeal the decision or if the ruling would conflict with a separate court order in another lawsuit brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

Homeless service providers, meanwhile, wondered what the implications would be for The Zone, the city and beyond.

“This is pretty monumental. It’s precedent-setting for the country,” said Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, of the court ruling. “It's a message that action has to be taken more quickly.”

The encampment, near 12th Avenue and Madison Street, is at the center of a lawsuit, Brown v. City of Phoenix, between the city and nearby residents and business owners who argue that the encampment is a public nuisance. They said they have witnessed people using drugs, littering and defecating on their properties and that the city hasn’t done enough to stop these and other problems.

On Monday, Judge Scott Blaney ordered Phoenix to remove the tents “as soon as is practicable,” ahead of a trial in the case scheduled for July.

Blaney also suggested that the city create a structured campground to house unsheltered people living in The Zone — a solution that service providers said would be feasible, albeit temporary.

Between 600 and 1,000 people live in The Zone at any given time, according to city records and court testimony.

In an email statement, a city spokesperson reiterated steps Phoenix has taken to mitigate the growing homeless crisis — including adding new shelter beds, adopting a plan to address homelessness and piloting enhanced cleanups of The Zone — but did not answer questions about whether the city has a plan to remove the tents in The Zone or where people living there will go.

"We are exploring options to accelerate current plans" for additional shelter space, Kristin Couturier said.

Zone resident: ‘Nobody knows where they’ll go’

Some longtime camp residents see the order as an attempt to scatter the community that residents have built and make it even harder to find help.

Lee Purifoy, a 72-year-old veteran who has lived in the encampment for almost a year, said many of his neighbors are unhappy with the decision.

“It’s a disruption. And nobody knows where they’ll go,” Purifoy said.

Other people staying in the CASS shelter nearby said they were happy to hear that the encampment, a hot spot for crime and drug use, could soon be removed.

“It’s not gonna get any better. 'Cause it’s all huddled right here, the drugs and everything else,” said James Carroll, who used to live on the street in The Zone but has been staying inside the shelter for the past two and a half years.

Business owners 'ecstatic' about order to remove tents

Business owners near The Zone celebrated the ruling.

Joel Coplin, owner of Gallery 119 and one of the people who sued the city over the encampment, said the area has become increasingly dangerous. He referenced two homicides in the area last week, including a body found burning in a dumpster.

He hopes the city will create a structured campground to provide more suitable living conditions for the unsheltered people there, he said.

“You have to provide for them. ... They need shade, shelter, security, mental health benefits,” he said.

Joseph Faillace, who runs the nearby Old Station Sub Shop and is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he was “ecstatic” about the decision but wondered whether there will be pushback from the ACLU and homelessness advocates. “I think it’s gonna be a battle,” he said.

In December, the ACLU filed a separate lawsuit against the city to halt cleanup sweeps of unhoused people’s belongings and stop police from enforcing ordinances that the lawsuit says “criminalize homelessness.” As part of that lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the city in December to stop enforcing camping and sleeping bans against unsheltered people as long as there are not enough shelter beds available and to stop seizing unsheltered people’s belongings without prior notice.

Neither the ACLU nor the city responded to questions about whether Monday’s county court order conflicts with the December federal court order.

Service providers weigh in on structured campground, ruling

Homeless service providers largely agreed that creating a structured campground would be an improvement over the status quo but worried that it would be a temporary fix that could distract from pursuing permanent solutions.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maricopa County operated a structured campground in a parking lot near The Zone for just over a year. It housed more than 200 people and had security, restrooms and staff providing services, said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus, which sits in the center of The Zone and houses organizations that provide homeless services.

While the campground was effective, it wasn’t without challenges. It was still hot under the tented area during the summer months, Schwabenlender said, and was less safe than permanent housing.

If the city were to create a similar campground to accommodate everyone currently living in The Zone, it would need to be about four times as large.

“I don’t know where that exists in downtown Phoenix,” Schwabenlender said.

Ruling against camp: Judge orders removal of tents from Phoenix's largest homeless encampment

Some service providers also expressed concerns that the court ruling could result in law enforcement criminalizing unhoused people.

“Absent real solutions, I feel like raiding encampments ... and scattering them to the wind really doesn’t effectively end their homelessness. It just puts them somewhere else,” said Michael Shore, president and CEO of HOM Inc., which operates permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing programs.

Glow, the CEO of CASS, praised the actions that Phoenix has already taken to address the homelessness crisis but said the problem is too big for one city alone to solve. Nonprofit organizations and other municipalities in the Valley must also step up, she said.

“It's not just a Phoenix problem. It's a regional problem,” Glow said. “Because people from all over the region are coming into The Zone.”

Juliette Rihl covers housing insecurity and homelessness for The Arizona Republic. She can be reached at jrihl@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @julietterihl.

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

Reach crime reporter Miguel Torres at miguel.torres@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @TheMiguelTorres.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Future of Phoenix homeless camp uncertain after court order