Jun 29, 2023 - News

Phoenix scraps homeless shelter plan after methane gas found and will allow sanctioned camping

The planned shelter site on May 10. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

Phoenix will not move forward with a planned homeless shelter at 22nd Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road after workers found "several challenges, including environmental issues" earlier this month.

Why it matters: Nearly 5,000 unhoused people live outdoors in metro Phoenix, and the promised beds would have provided indoor shelter for 280 people.

  • Additionally, a court has ordered Phoenix to clear its largest homeless encampment this summer, but the city does not currently have enough indoor options to offer to displaced people.

What's happening: The city provided limited information to Axios about what issues were found but said it had abandoned the site.

  • The shelter was supposed to open this month to provide relief during the summer heat but was delayed multiple times before the city pulled the plug.
  • City spokesperson Kristin Couturier says staff is "urgently focused on identifying a new location."

The intrigue: The city had been working on the site for several months before the discovery was made. Staff did not say why it took so long to find the environmental issues.

What they're saying: Council member Deb Stark, who previously served as the city's planning director, told us methane gas was found at the site. She says typically workers would test soil and study the past uses of a property to ensure no environmental issues persisted before beginning any work there.

  • "We did not do a good job with due diligence on the property," Stark says. "I'm not fully blaming staff. We're just so desperate to build and in such a rush we didn't do what we needed to do."

Mayor Kate Gallego declined an interview request from Axios. In a statement, she called the environmental issue "disheartening" and said the city would "continue investing in solutions that can ultimately help Phoenicians end their homelessness and put them on a path to permanent housing."

Meanwhile, the Phoenix City Council voted yesterday to purchase 4 acres of state land just down the street from the encampment known as "the Zone," which the city is disbanding.

  • Staff wants to open a sanctioned camping area — they're calling a it "safe outdoor space" — where each person will get a 12-foot-by-12-foot space to set up a tent.
  • The land has a 12,000-square-foot industrial storage facility the city will use as a daytime cooling center during the summer.

Between the lines: Deputy city manager Gina Montes told council this is planned as a temporary campground to immediately address the court order to clear the encampment.

  • Plus, it will "help people already outside to be in a safer space," she said.

Of note: The public homeless service providers and some council members were caught off-guard by the sanctioned campgrounds. The council agenda said only that the land would be used to "assist the unsheltered population."

  • The Arizona Republic, which broke the news about the city's plan the night before the vote, reported that multiple council members and the operators of the state's largest homeless shelter were unaware of the sanctioned campground until contacted by reporters.
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