By Gabe Cohen, CNN
The young widow watched as the helpers wended through the Zone at sunrise, offering what they could: water, a bus ticket or a shelter bed — if one was open.
Standing beside her tent, Rayann Denny sized up the sprawling camp of 900 or so people improvised along sidewalks in downtown Phoenix:
“It’s a whole nother world.”
The soft-spoken 37-year-old ended up homeless last year after her husband died and she couldn’t pay the bills alone. This camp, she said, can be “a lot of drama,” with flares of violence. But Denny won’t stay in a shelter, with its rules and a curfew, as she relies on drugs to get through her days.
“I just try to keep myself high,” she said, “so I don’t have to deal with the pain.”
Her home base here, though — however scant — soon will vanish.
In the latest chapter of America’s increasingly polarized approach to homelessness, Phoenix must permanently clear the area that’s become known as the Zone after a judge ruled in favor of neighbors who sued the city, calling the encampment — next to a non-profit social services hub and blocks from the state Capitol and the city’s Major League Baseball stadium — an illegal “public nuisance.”
Their lawsuit could be a model for those looking to force other US cities to clear similar encampments, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. But the prospect worries advocates for the unhoused, who say it simply pushes a critical problem out of public view, especially as soaring home prices and expensive borrowing have pushed households to the brink.
As Phoenix officials prepare to start moving tents out of the Zone this week, they’re also scrambling to create safe options for the displaced: leasing more hotel rooms and vacant buildings to convert into shelters, and building an outdoor campground with security, restrooms and hand-washing stations, the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions director told CNN.
But those won’t be available right away.
So for now, the crew of helpers has stepped up its years-old effort to try to get residents off the streets.
“We have to move fast,” team leader Nette Reed said. “We have to come up with a plan.”
They sued the city — and won
Debbie and Joe Faillace have owned Old Station Sub Shop, next to where the camp cropped up, for more than 30 years. They frequently discover property damage, drug paraphernalia and feces when they get to work, they said.
“There’s just a complete lawlessness, and it’s getting worse,” Debbie Faillace said. “We want our neighborhood back. We want to feel safe.”
While more states are passing controversial laws to ban public camping, Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs this year vetoed one such bill, saying it only served to make homelessness “less visible.”
The Faillaces and others already had sued last year in state court over the Zone, an unofficial nickname that isn’t universally embraced. They claimed the city had allowed its public spaces to violate its own public nuisance laws, with unsanitary conditions, drug use, violence and property crimes, fire hazards and blocked rights of way, court documents show.
A judge in March ruled in their favor, giving the city a few months to eliminate the nuisance conditions, records show.
The legal strategy may offer a template to anyone who lives or works near large homeless encampments, said Ilan Wurman, a lawyer for the Phoenix plaintiffs and an associate law professor at Arizona State University.
“We basically showed a proof of concept to use the courts to force cities’ hands to actually do something about the humanitarian aspect of this crisis,” Wurman said. “We hope other businesses, property owners and homeowners take up this fight in other jurisdictions where there are massive homeless encampments.”
But using such a lawsuit to clear an encampment like the Zone is an oversimplified tactic that not only doesn’t end unsheltered homelessness — but also increases “invisible homelessness,” National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Ann Oliva said.
“Of course we’re worried that this is going to be picked up as a tactic by other communities,” she said. “I hope that it’s not a template for how other communities want to address this issue because we know that the only way to actually address this issue and homelessness is affordable housing and the services that people want and need in order to get housing.”
‘I don’t want to … walk the streets’
The Phoenix area has roughly half as many shelter beds as people experiencing homelessness, a population that’s grown 46% since 2019 amid the affordable housing crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to annual counts coordinated by the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Many who live in the Zone have jobs or get government assistance — but say they still can’t afford rent. By setting up camp outside the non-profit Human Services Campus, they guaranteed quick access to a secure center with roughly 900 shelter beds — full on most nights — plus aid including food, water and health care, all critical during Arizona’s scorching summers.
As the Zone is cleared, “the farther people get removed, … the harder it will be for them to access services,” Human Services Campus CEO Amy Schwabenlender said.
“People will be more likely to die,” she said, “or be sick and go to the emergency room.” More than 700 people experiencing homelessness died last year in Phoenix’s Maricopa County — a 23% increase over 2020 that reflects the bump in unhoused people over that period, county officials confirmed to CNN.
The Zone clearing, due to start Wednesday, will be piecemeal and dovetail with city efforts to come up with alternatives for its residents, said Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions.
“The city’s approach will be to take it one step at a time, one block at a time, one group of people at a time, making sure that we are able to offer those 50 or so people in that block a variety of different solutions, a variety of different places to go, all of which have the services that they will need to keep them safe and healthy,” she said. “It’s safer certainly than where they are now.”
But without a confirmed opening date for the city-structured campground, advocates for unhoused people expect encampments like the Zone to pop up in other Phoenix neighborhoods, they said.
“It moves people into other spaces where they’re most likely also not going to be welcomed in,” Schwabenlender said. “And if they think a safe outdoor space is going to end homelessness, it’s not. It just shuffles people from one place to another.”
Indeed, many see efforts now in the works in Phoenix as a Band-Aid on the larger crisis facing cities across the country. “We’ve got to work on other solutions: preventing more inflow, preventing people from experiencing homelessness, helping them exit the system quickly so that those shelter beds that we do have can be used more efficiently,” Milne said.
“I think we have a lot of work to do.”
Stefanie Powell doesn’t know where she’ll go when cleanup begins at the Zone, where she lives in a tent with her boyfriend, she said.
“I don’t want to wind up having to walk the streets again,” Powell said about finding a new place to stay. She can’t work, she added, because of medical issues like neuropathy and fibromyalgia.
“It’s hard because nobody wants to see the problem. Nobody wants to acknowledge the problem,” she said.
“They just want it to go away.”
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