/ Modified nov 4, 2023 11:01 a.m.

Phoenix finishes clearing downtown homeless encampment after finding shelter for more than 500

The hundreds of tents that once lined blocks of streets in the area are now gone.

PHX Homeless Camp A person walks past tarps, cloths, and tents set up as temporary living spaces on West Madison Street in “The Zone,” the area surrounding the Human Services Campus in Phoenix on March 1, 2023.
Logan Camden/Cronkite News

The city of Phoenix has successfully cleared out a massive downtown homeless encampment by Saturday's court-ordered deadline by helping more than 500 people find beds in shelters and motels.

The hundreds of tents that once lined blocks of streets in the area are now gone, with just a few people milling about or pushing shopping carts filled with their belongings.

“I was staying with a friend in a tent but he's now gone to a shelter,” said Lily Bitsui, 33, who looked a bit lost. Bitsui said she was not around when city workers were offering to help people find a place to stay inside.

“They've really cleaned up things, and there's a lot less crime around here now,” said Rudy Soliz, the operations director at the area's Justa Center, which provides daytime services for older homeless people, including meals and housing assistance. “I'm glad that a lot of those people have gone to shelters.”

Soliz said the move had also cut down on neighborhood crime.

The process of clearing the area began in the spring, with city workers focusing on a block at a time, offering the street dwellers a place to sleep indoors, including emergency shelters, temporary stays at motels, and longer-term transitional housing for older people.

After each of the 15 blocks was cleared, it was cleaned of debris and closed off to camping.

City officials say that over the course of several months, 718 people were offered help in finding shelter, and 585 — about 80% — accepted placement. Phoenix also has now opened a city parking lot that was recently rezoned to allow homeless people to pitch tents under safer, controlled circumstances.

A city statement said 21 people are now staying at the site, which will have portable restrooms and showers, meal service, property storage, security, and a resident code of conduct. Drugs, alcohol, and fires are prohibited and camping will not be allowed along the sides of the property.

The city was able to place so many people because 482 new temporary shelter beds have been added this year, including 362 in October. There are 600 beds at the city's largest emergency shelter nearby.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney in October denied city officials' request for an extension on cleaning up the encampment known as “The Zone,” and reiterated his order that they get the job done by Saturday. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30 to verify that Phoenix complied with the November deadline.

Like several other major cities, Phoenix has been challenged to balance the concerns of businesses and homeowners with the rights of homeless people. Business owners and residents near the encampment in Phoenix called it a public nuisance that subjected them to damage, litter, and crime.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist.

“While the City has met this court deadline, there is still work to be done,” the city said in a statement. “The goal remains to ensure that every person has access to safe housing and services while preserving quality of life in our neighborhoods for all residents.”

By posting comments, you agree to our
AZPM encourages comments, but comments that contain profanity, unrelated information, threats, libel, defamatory statements, obscenities, pornography or that violate the law are not allowed. Comments that promote commercial products or services are not allowed. Comments in violation of this policy will be removed. Continued posting of comments that violate this policy will result in the commenter being banned from the site.

By submitting your comments, you hereby give AZPM the right to post your comments and potentially use them in any other form of media operated by this institution.
AZPM is a service of the University of Arizona and our broadcast stations are licensed to the Arizona Board of Regents who hold the trademarks for Arizona Public Media and AZPM. We respectfully acknowledge the University of Arizona is on the land and territories of Indigenous peoples.
The University of Arizona