Phoenix to Start Clearing Sprawling Downtown Homeless Encampment

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The Zone has become a flashpoint in a national debate over how to address the growth of street encampments where residents live in deep poverty and some face mental health challenges or fentanyl addiction.

“This isn’t a life. It’s an existence,” Shina Sepulveda, who is homeless and lives in the Zone, told The New York Times recently.

A defining 2018 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Martin v. Boise, found that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go. City leaders across the West have grappled with how to handle homeless camps when they do not have enough space at shelters or in supportive housing.

Patience has worn thin in some communities with significant homeless populations, and residents and business owners have asked their city officials to do more to move people off the streets.

The Maricopa County injunction provides one possible path for other communities. However, the issue continues to be litigated from all sides, including lawyers who argue that cities cannot remove encampments because they have still done too little to provide housing. A federal judge reiterated that position last month when San Francisco sought to clear tents from its Tenderloin neighborhood.

The number of unsheltered Phoenix residents has risen dramatically, from 771 in 2014 to 3,096 in 2022, according to the city. As many as 1,100 people have slept outdoors in the Zone on a given night.

Last year, a group of residents and business owners, including the proprietors of a sandwich shop near the encampment whose struggles were detailed by The Times, sued Phoenix and asked the city to clean up the area.

The city contended that it had discretion over how to address homelessness, including how best to move people out of camps.

In late March, Judge Scott Blaney of Maricopa County Superior Court found that the city had, in essence, stopped enforcing laws in the Zone and the area had become a dangerous “public nuisance.” He ordered the city to remove tents and other makeshift structures from sidewalks, as well as clear human waste and trash, among other requirements.

Stephen Tully, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that his clients filed suit only after they had spent years trying to work with the city to keep homeless people from blocking business entrances and streets, openly using drugs and defecating on their property.

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