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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

City employees begin clearing out Phoenix’s largest tent city

Officials say they’ll move block by block until the downtown homeless encampment known as “the zone” is cleared of more than 400 tents.

PHOENIX (CN) — Following a Maricopa County judge’s order, Phoenix city employees and outreach teams have begun clearing out the multi-block homeless encampment just in view of the state capital building. 

About 43 people were moved from a portion of 9th Avenue between Washington and Jefferson streets Wednesday morning. Each of them either were reunited with family members or will be placed in a variety of shelters and hotel rooms throughout the city.

“My need is simple,” said Ron, a homeless man who lived on 9th Avenue before his block was cleared. “Find me a place to live.”

Roughly 900 people live in the area of downtown Phoenix known as “the zone,” spanning from 7th to 15th Avenue and from Van Buren to Grant Street, just a few blocks away from both City Hall and the statehouse. The tent city grew exponentially following a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling in Martin v. Boise, which held cities can’t enforce anticamping ordinances if they don’t have enough shelter beds available for the homeless population. 

Phoenix's encampment has received national attention, being the subject of two possibly competing lawsuits that the city will have to juggle moving forward.

City employees began cleaning the multi-block homeless encampment known as the Zone around 7 a.m. on Wed., May 10. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Phoenix in Arizona federal court this past November, asking a judge to bar the city from removing tents if it doesn’t have enough shelter beds for the occupants. Settlement talks are still underway, so it’s unclear how the outcome might affect the city’s plan to eradicate the zone. 

The order to clear the zone stems from a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court by a group of neighbors and business owners who demanded the city address what they called a “humanitarian crisis.” In March, Judge Scott Blaney ordered the city to remove tents from public property in the area.

Joe Faillace, co-owner of Old Station Sub Shop and a plaintiff in the case, said he’s glad the city is taking action.

“It’s a start,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get our neighborhood back.”

Faillace, 70, had plans to sell his business and retire, but said nobody wants to buy given the location. He hopes the city’s actions will benefit the zone’s inhabitants as well as local business owners. But he’s unsure if the crisis can be solved.

“Where are those people gonna go?” he asked. 

Some will end up in Central Arizona Shelter Services’ overflow shelter at St. Vincent De Paul Human Services, nearly two miles south of the zone. Ron, who’s been homeless for two years, will spend his nights there for now. He moved into the zone less than two months ago.

Unable to continue working as a truck driver because of a pending neck surgery, he has no revenue other than Social Security. That isn’t nearly enough to keep up with Phoenix’s skyrocketing rent prices, especially when he’s constantly paying for food, water and other essentials.

“Out in the elements, you can’t save any money,” he said. “You gotta spend just about every dime you got just to survive.”

Ron has used Central Arizona Shelter Services before. He’s stayed at the overflow shelter three times but this time will be different, he said. He didn’t want to acknowledge his homelessness before, but now he’s “screaming for services.”

“I should be progressing away from shelters into either rapid housing, or just find me an affordable place that I can live,” he said. “Get me started in it. I can take care of the rest."

By 2 p.m. on Wed., May 10, the portion of 9th Avenue between Washington and Jefferson streets was completely cleared of tents. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Once at St. Vincent, clients will use a housing assessment tool to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize people based on need, said Scott Hall, deputy director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions. 

“That’s a process,” Hall said. “Right now, (it’s) stabilizing and shelter, and then they start working with case management.”

After that, people can be assigned to different, more permanent solutions — so long as housing is available.

“Housing is free market,” Hall said. “We’re at the will of that. It’s much harder and slower than it used to be. Not impossible, but it is a huge barrier.”

There’s no timeline for when the rest of the zone will be cleared. The city will regroup and plan further clearings based on Wednesday's results.

“We don’t want to get too fast of a pace where we can’t offer those resources and create that engagement,” Hall said. “We have a goal for two weeks at a time, but it’s a case-by-case basis.”

The flimsy timeline leaves the rest of the zone’s occupants wondering what happens next. 

Paulette has been homeless for 43 years, and has lived in Phoenix for nine. She doesn't know where she'll end up after her section of the zone is cleared of tents. (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Paulette, who’s been homeless for 43 years and has lived in Phoenix for nine, said she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be in the zone, nor where she’ll go next.

“Wherever I go, I’m going home,” she said. “Because home is outdoors.”

Until then, she, and nearly 900 others, can only wait. 

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