Mar 29, 2023 - News

Judge orders Phoenix to clear "the Zone" homeless encampment

A July 2022 aerial view of "the Zone" in Phoenix. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Phoenix has until July to clear an encampment near the Human Services Campus where more than 800 unhoused people sleep on a nightly basis, a Maricopa County court judge ruled Monday.

State of play: A group of nearby business owners and residents sued the city of Phoenix last August, alleging the city caused "irreparable harm" by allowing the encampment to take over the sidewalks around their land.

  • The plaintiffs told the court they've witnessed people in the encampment using drugs, defecating and committing acts of violence and have been told by police they are under orders not to enforce most laws in the encampment dubbed "the Zone."

Driving the news: Superior Court judge Scott Blaney slammed the city in the ruling, saying it intentionally stopped enforcing "criminal, health, and other quality of life statutes and ordinances," creating "lawlessness and chaos in the Zone."

  • Blaney said the area is a "public nuisance" and the city must remove all tents and other makeshift structures from the public right-of-way "as soon as is practicable," with a July 10 deadline.

Why it matters: Compliance with the ruling will likely require the city to find somewhere else for the hundreds of people who live in tents. Existing emergency shelter beds across the Valley are filled most every night, providers told Axios Phoenix.

  • Blaney suggested creating sanctioned camping areas on vacant city land with bathrooms and security.

What they're saying: Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari, whose district includes the Zone tells Axios Phoenix she doesn't think the ruling took into account the "unprecedented amount of resources" the city has put toward solutions.

  • The city added 600 emergency shelter beds last year and will add another 800 this year, she says.
  • "I don't think it's as simple as finding a city-owned lot and moving people," she says, instead suggesting Phoenix work with the state and other cities to find housing options for every person in the encampment.

Between the lines: Human Services Campus executive director Amy Schwabenlender told Axios Phoenix at least half of the 800-plus people in the Zone are working with outreach workers get meals, employment help and other assistance on the campus.

  • "The farther people are from this location, the more barriers they'll have to accessing those services," she said.

The other side: Phoenix is facing other legal battles from groups that believe the city over-polices the homeless population.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the city late last year over city policies that "criminalize homelessness," and a federal judge issued an emergency order prohibiting the city from conducting encampment sweeps last December.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Phoenix Police Department, in part because of allegations it "unlawfully seizes or disposes of the belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness."

What we're watching: Will Knight, decriminalization program director of the National Homelessness Law Center, said this week's county court order is in conflict with the December federal ruling. That will have to be addressed before the city can force anyone out of the Zone.

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