PHOENIX (CN) — The city of Phoenix has until early November to finish clearing out a large downtown homeless encampment known as “the zone,” after a recent ruling from a Maricopa County judge.
Phoenix residents living between 7th and 15th Avenues and between Washington and Grant Streets sued the city in 2022 for allowing hundreds of homeless people to set up tents along city streets. A trial in the case began in July, with plaintiffs claiming the city created a public nuisance by allowing the zone to exist and refusing to enforce laws.
Plaintiffs complained of increased violent crime, drug use, vandalism and human waste left in the streets since the tent city first began forming in 2019.
Maricopa County Judge Scott Blaney agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that the city is responsible for abating the nuisance. He gave the city 45 days, until Nov. 4, to finish what it started by removing each and every tent from the zone and regularly enforcing city ordinances against public camping.
Blaney wrote in his Tuesday order that the date will give the city 15 months from the time the lawsuit was filed and nearly two years from when plaintiffs initially sought aid from the city council to fix the problem.
“The court therefore finds little merit to any argument that a 45-day deadline does not allow sufficient time for the City to complete the clean-up.”
Plaintiff's attorney Stephen Tully asked Blaney to order the zone to be cleared by September, though he said the Nov. 4 deadline is “very reasonable” given the date of the order.
“Our clients are very pleased,” he said after the ruling.
City attorneys asked Blaney for nine months from the July trial, a far cry from the 45 days given. They argued that the city should be allowed to move at its own pace to ensure people removed from the zone are treated properly.
The city began clearing the zone block by block in May following a preliminary injunction from the same judge demanding it take care of the nuisance. It’s been moving slowly, apparently caught between a rock and a hard place juggling this case alongside a federal case demanding the opposite outcome.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the federal case against the city in 2022, seeking to enjoin the city from clearing tents and criminalizing camping on streets. The civil rights group bolstered its claims with a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling in Martin v. Boise, which held that cities can’t enforce anti-camping ordinances against involuntarily homeless individuals if there aren’t enough shelter beds available for those they remove from the street.
A federal judge in Arizona echoed that decision in December when he told the city it can’t clear the zone without ensuring shelter availability or other forms of aid. Because of those decisions, city officials reason that slow and steady is the only way to abate the nuisance while abiding by the law.
But Blaney said the city incorrectly applied the Martin v. Boise ruling, as well as a similar 2023 ruling in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, to its case.
While both rulings ban the enforcement of camping ordinances against involuntarily homeless people, they don’t preclude cities from prohibiting fires, stoves or complex structures, nor do they preclude cities from “abating a nuisance, arresting violent offenders, enforcing laws against drugs and violence, or enforcing laws against biohazards and pollution of public waters, etc.”
“The most glaring misinterpretation of the Martin and Grants Pass opinions is the inference that anyone who has erected a tent or other structure in the public rights of way is intrinsically unable to otherwise obtain shelter,” Blaney went on. “The Court rejects such a broad, unsupported inference.”
People who refuse shelter because they can’t bring partners, pets or personal property, or refuse shelter for any reason other than physical inability, are not voluntarily homeless, he wrote, and therefore aren’t legally entitled to set up tents on city land.
Regardless, Blaney said the city can’t be trusted to abate the nuisance without direct orders from the court, as it only began clearing the zone after Blaney’s preliminary injunction.
"The city of Phoenix is disappointed with the Court’s ruling," city representative Kristin Couturier said. "The city is addressing the area around the Human Services Campus strategically, one block at a time to ensure we can offer every individual we engage with shelter. The city is reviewing the Court’s ruling and exploring legal options."
As of Tuesday, the city estimates 368 people are remaining in the zone. Couturier didn't answer whether she or other city officials believe its possible to provide services to all of those people by Nov. 4.
Blaney said he’ll allow the city to finish clearing the zone in whichever way officials see fit. The city is expected to appear in court on Nov. 30 to demonstrate how it has abated the nuisance.Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
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