Homeless encampment in Phoenix to be cleared after neighbors file lawsuit. What happens to vulnerable residents remains unclear

Phoenix (CNN) The young widow watched helpers pass through the Zone at sunrise, offering what they could: water, a bus ticket, or a shelter bed – if there was one open.

Standing next to her tent, Rayann Denny sized up the sprawling encampment of about 900 people makeshift on the sidewalks of downtown Phoenix:

“It’s a whole other world.”

The soft-spoken 37-year-old became homeless last year after her husband died and she couldn’t pay the bills on her own. This camp, she said, can be “very dramatic,” with outbursts of violence. But Danny won’t stay in a shelter with its rules and curfews as he relies on drugs to get through his days.

“I’m just trying to keep myself high,” she said, “so I don’t have to deal with the pain.”

However, her base here – meager as it is – will soon disappear.

Rayann Denny lives in a tent at a homeless camp in Phoenix.

In the latest chapter in America’s increasingly polarized approach to homelessness, Phoenix must permanently clean up the area that has become known as the Zone after a judge ruled in favor of neighbors who sued the city, calling the encampment — to a nonprofit social service downtown 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 seeking to force other American cities to clean up similar encampments, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. But that prospect worries homeless advocates, who say it simply pushes a critical problem out of the public eye, especially as soaring housing prices and expensive mortgages have pushed households to the brink.

As Phoenix officials prepare to begin moving tents out of the Zone this week, they are also scrambling to create safe options for the displaced: renting more hotel rooms and vacant buildings to turn into shelters and building a guarded outdoor campground. restrooms and hand-washing stations, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions told CNN.

But they won’t be available right away.

So for now, the team of helpers has stepped up its long-standing efforts to try to get residents off the streets.

“We have to act fast,” said team leader Nette Reed. “We have to come up with a plan.”

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They sued the city – and won

Debbie and Joe Feilas have owned the Old Station Sub Shop, next to where the camp originated, for more than 30 years. They often find property damage, drug paraphernalia and feces when they get to work, they said.

“There’s just complete lawlessness and it’s getting worse,” said Debbie Failas. “We want our neighborhood back. We want to feel safe.”

As more states pass controversial laws to ban public camping, this year Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed one such bill, saying it only served to make homelessness “less visible.”

Debbie and Joe Feilas own the Old Station Sub Shop near where a homeless encampment developed.

Faillaces and others were already sued last year in state court for the Zone, an unofficial nickname that is not universally accepted. They argued the city 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 several months to fix the nuisance conditions, records show.

The legal strategy could offer a template to anyone who lives or works near large homeless encampments, said Ilan Wurman, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Phoenix and an associate professor of law at Arizona State University.

“In practice, we showed a proof of concept of using the courts to force the hands of cities to actually do something about the humanitarian aspect of this crisis,” Wurman said. “We hope that other businesses, property owners and homes will 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 homelessness, but also increases “invisible homelessness,” said National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Ann Oliva.

“Of course we are concerned that this will be perceived as a tactic by other communities,” she said. “I hope this is not a template for how other communities want to deal with this problem because we know that the only way to really deal with this problem and homelessness is affordable housing and the services that people want and need , 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 has grown 46 percent since 2019 amid the affordable housing crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to annual counts coordinated by Maricopa Association of Governments.

Many who live in the Zone have jobs or receive government assistance, but say they still can’t afford rent. Setting up camp outside the nonprofit’s Human Services Campus, they ensured quick access to a shelter with roughly 900 shelter beds — full most nights — plus aid, including food, water and health care, all critical during Arizona’s hot summers.

Like the Zone is allowed, “the further people are removed, … the more difficult it will be for them to access services,” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlander.

A man walks through a homeless encampment on April 18 in Phoenix.

“People will be more likely to die,” she said, “or be sick and go to the emergency room.” More than 700 people who became homeless died last year in Phoenix’s Maricopa County — an increase from 23 percent from 2020, reflecting an increase in homelessness during that period, county officials confirmed to CNN.

The cleanup of the area, set to begin Wednesday, will be phased and coincide with the city’s efforts to offer alternatives for its residents, said Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

“The city’s approach is going to be to take it one step at a time, block by block, one group of people at a time, making sure that we’re able to offer those 50 or so people on that block a variety of different solutions, a variety of different places, at to go to, all of which have the services they will need to be safe and healthy,” she said. “It’s certainly safer than where they are now.”

But with no confirmed opening date for the city-structured campground, homeless advocates expect encampments like the Zone to pop up in other Phoenix neighborhoods, they said.

“It moves people into other spaces where they probably won’t be welcome either,” Schwabenlander said. “And if they think safe outdoor space is going to end homelessness, it’s not.” It just moves people from one place to another.”

Indeed, many see the current effort in Phoenix as a Band-Aid for the larger crisis facing cities across the country. “We need to work on other solutions: preventing a greater influx, preventing people from experiencing homelessness, helping them exit the system quickly so that the shelter beds we have can be used more effectively,” said Milne.

“I think we have a lot of work to do.”

Stephanie Powell, right, lives in a tent at a homeless encampment in Phoenix.

Stephanie Powell doesn’t know where she’ll go when the cleanup begins in the area where she lives in a tent with her boyfriend, she said.

“I don’t want to have to walk the streets again,” Powell said of finding a new place to stay. She can’t work, she added, because of medical issues like neuropathy and fibromyalgia.

“It’s hard because no one wants to see the problem. Nobody wants to admit the problem,” she said.

“They just want it gone.”

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