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Empty zone: Phoenix clears homeless encampment, turns to long-term solutions

Posted 12/5/23

PHOENIX – This past spring, the city of Phoenix was court-ordered to clear out its largest homeless encampment, The Zone.

The city’s Office of Homeless Solutions had to tackle the …

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Empty zone: Phoenix clears homeless encampment, turns to long-term solutions


PHOENIX – This past spring, the city of Phoenix was court-ordered to clear out its largest homeless encampment, The Zone.

The city’s Office of Homeless Solutions had to tackle the difficult, oftentimes painful and complicated issue of moving nearly 1,000 unhoused people, and their possessions, off the streets where some had been living for years.

The area of The Zone that the city was responsible to clear took up roughly 15 city blocks from Seventh Avenue to 15th Avenue and Van Buren Street to Grant Street in downtown Phoenix. It was filled with tents, handmade shelters, platforms and tarps. The residents there included some who were 17, as well as younger children with their families, but the majority were 25 and older.

In March, after several property owners and businesses near the encampment sued the city over safety and health concerns, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney ruled the city had to clear out the makeshift shelters and show proof of its efforts at a follow-up hearing on July 10. In a September ruling, Judge Blaney gave a deadline of Nov. 4 to have all 15 blocks cleared.

Phoenix officials say the people encamped in The Zone were notified before city crews showed up to clear them out. The city received help from the Human Services Campus, a collaborative of 16 partner organizations with a shared goal to end homelessness. The HSC says its people worked hard to notify people, block by block, in advance of the city’s clearing schedule.

However, the people living in The Zone who were interviewed for this article said they had no advance notice they were being moved, and they weren’t given options on where to go.

Amy Schwabenlender, CEO of the HSC, said there could be many reasons why people claim they weren’t notified. She said the HSC would go out at different times each day and some homeless people could have been missed if they weren’t there at that time. She also said those with substance use disorders might not have understood or remembered what they were told. And some, she said, might be angry and want to put the city and organizations in a bad light.

This story contains comments from some of the people as they were being cleared out of The Zone. Their life stories are not verified but they give some perspective of what this process has been like for them.

Maria Concepción Walters, 56, said she was released from jail on Oct. 19, the night before she found out she was being forced to move. She said she had been living on the corner of a side street in The Zone for the past six years; at 7 a.m. on Oct. 20, city workers showed up and told her she needed to clear her stuff out. She said she had no idea this was going to happen.

She put her dog in its cage and began throwing unwanted things on the street: tarp, trash, wood used for shelter, a worn-out mattress. She took a hand broom and swept the dirt where she once lived. “I want to sue the whole city,” she said with frustration. “They ask about our income and if we don’t have any, they help the others first and it hurts my feelings.” She said her next step is to go to a hotel for now.

Jay Duval and Melissa Valles sit near their tents on the sidewalk that will soon be cleared by Phoenix officials. Both have lived in this area of The Zone for two years. (Photo by John Leos/Cronkite News)
Jay Duval and Melissa Valles sit near their tents on the sidewalk that will soon be cleared by Phoenix officials. Both have lived in this area of The …

How did Phoenix get here?

According to the 2022 Point-in-Time Count Report, 9,026 people were experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County on the night of Jan. 24, 2022. About 1,200 of them had been homeless continuously for a year or at least four times in the past three years. The PIT reports for Maricopa County show since 2018, unsheltered homelessness in the region has increased by 92%.

The HSC has been tackling homelessness in Phoenix for many years and was present in The Zone before the encampment became known nationally as a symbol of urban homelessness.

Schwabenlender said she started working at the campus in August 2018 and at that time, there were no tents, temporary structures or people camping outside of the HSC. She said they also didn’t have an outreach team then, but they estimated there were a total of about 400 unsheltered people in the surrounding neighborhood.

After the pandemic, “with eviction moratoriums ending, with isolation orders ending, with people wanting to get back to work, with eviction rates still continuing to be high and still people wanting to move to Arizona, we started to see an increase of people,” Schwabenlender said.

According to Schwabenlender, the HSC and Central Arizona Shelter Services opened up more beds a year and a half ago and continued offering people mats on floors. She said they were sheltering 900 people a night and they still saw an increase in people camping outside.

Schwabenlender said organizations and individuals outside of the HSC started handing out tents to give people some shelter from the heat in the summer and cold nights in the winter.

“That’s when we saw people really start to use those posts and chains and build more structures that they were essentially living in. It’s really hard to watch people living that way and knowing that our shelters are full so we can’t offer them an indoor space,” Schwabenlender said. “It’s not healthy to live in those conditions on a sidewalk. At the same time, there was nowhere for people to go. It’s been a very interesting time and that increase was due to a lot of different dynamics.”

A 2018 case out of Idaho that went before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist.

Schwabenlender said although that’s what the ruling states, the city can still put up “no camping” signs in certain areas to avoid encampments, and that the ruling specifically prevents the city from prohibiting individuals across the entire Phoenix area from sleeping in public spaces.

According to Phoenix Councilmember Ann O’Brien, Phoenix has over 71% of the homeless population in the region.

Teams from outreach organizations coordinate with the city on Oct. 20 to facilitate the removal of tents and property owned by people who have lived in The Zone, once one of the largest homeless encampments in the country. (Photo by John Leos/Cronkite News)
Teams from outreach organizations coordinate with the city on Oct. 20 to facilitate the removal of tents and property owned by people who have lived …

Countdown to Nov. 4

It took city workers from May to September to clear half the 15 blocks in The Zone. The ninth block was cleared on Sept. 20, leaving six blocks left to be cleared.

On Oct. 20, starting at 7 a.m., the clearing crew targeted one of the three remaining blocks, telling people to clean out their camps. Most of the trash or unwanted items were thrown on the street for the city to sweep up later. Other items were thrown on carts, wagons, bikes and anything else people could use to move their belongings. The HSC was there to help, passing out water and sandwiches.

The city said it has offered shelters and other resources to those being cleared.

“We work closely with shelter providers and our community partners to coordinate available and appropriate shelter beds.” said Kristin Couturier, senior public information officer for the city of Phoenix. “Some of our many partners include the Human Services Campus, Community Bridges, INC., St. Vincent de Paul, UMOM, Central Arizona Shelter Services and Native American Connections.”

On the morning of Oct. 20, Paul Terry, 52, rolled up on his wheelchair to the tape blocking off the area. “What’s going on? Where’s my stuff?” he said.

When asked if he was aware of what was happening, he said he was very confused and didn’t know his shelter would be cleared out. “I got here a long time ago, I’m homeless and paralyzed and now everything I had, it’s gone.”

Jay Duval, 52, and Melissa Valles, 50, were neighbors on the block being cleared. Duval said he was on probation and had been living there for a year. Valles said she had been there for two years and is currently needing surgery for her foot. “They haven’t really offered us anything or came and told us what was happening today,” Valles said. Duval shook his head in agreement, “It sucks.”

Lyle Daniels, 53, said he got hit by a car six years ago and had to have eight surgeries that put him in so much debt he lost everything and became homeless. He said he has been living in The Zone for the last year and has been living off Social Security. Although his disability limits him, he said he is back in the workforce trying to make enough money for his own rent.

“There’s those of us that are here that want to get our lives back,” he said. “I do, and it’s very frustrating and it’s very hurtful.”

He said the city has told him there is going to be more housing available and the programs offered will be suitable for everyone, but he hasn’t seen that yet. “I wish they could have better planning and to do something more for the people here. I have no idea where they’re going or what’s happening.”

The efforts of the Human Services Campus

Schwabenlender said the HSC helped the city distribute flyers about the clearance in order to notify people two weeks before their blocks were cleared.

She said the HSC’s outreach team also was going out every day to tell people about transportation and shelter options, and offering to take them to a treatment center for substance use. They also told them their possessions could be stored through a storage program.

Nette Reed, a social services navigator for the HSC, went out at 4 a.m. on a regular basis to talk with people and help them understand what was happening.

Reed said one of the biggest barriers was that many unhoused people were skeptical and immediately declined any help. People believed they were hearing empty promises, Reed said. After getting that response often, she changed her approach.

“‘I’ll help you’ is just not the right words to feed off of. You got to put actions with that. You know, you put actions with that and they can feel your energy on what you’re giving out and it’ll encourage them,” Reed said.

Schwabenlender said many homeless people have a lack of trust and it is important for the city and those who are helping them to build a trusting relationship with each individual.

“That can take a long time. So, you know from our organization, we don’t give up on anybody. I feel like it’s incumbent on us to figure out how to keep offering services, ask people what’s a barrier to accessing service and how can we support them that’s meeting people where they’re at?” Schwabenlender said. “It’s for them to really choose and decide which different path they take. We’re not here to force anybody to do anything. We want to support them.”

Reed said she would ask people what she can do for them that is realistic. “I’ve been right where you at. I done sat on corners too. I’ve been here. So trust me, I am that person you can talk to because I have no stipulation at judging you, calling you outside your name, or anything. You know, I needed help, you need help. I came out of it, and you will too.”

Reed said this change in approach helped her build a relationship of trust with the clients.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Schwabenlender said. “Our staff have to be super patient to really wait for people to be ready for the step that they want to take.”

The 14th block of The Zone was cleared on Oct. 30, and the very last block was cleared on Nov. 1.

Lyle Daniels, who says he has lived in The Zone for a year after a series of surgeries left him in severe medical debt, watches the clearing of the encampment block by block. (Photo by John Leos/Cronkite News)
Lyle Daniels, who says he has lived in The Zone for a year after a series of surgeries left him in severe medical debt, watches the clearing of the …

The aftermath

Couturier said the city is in the process of compiling data related to engagement and cleanup efforts and plans to present it to council and the public later this year.

Phoenix stated in its news release that 718 people were offered services and 585 of those individuals accepted placement at an indoor location.

“In 2023, the City worked with its partners to add 482 new temporary shelter beds, 362 of those in October alone. These temporary locations are currently serving people in need while the City continues to implement permanent solutions, including creating and preserving affordable housing as well as adding 790 new shelter beds,” the news release stated.

Couturier said the city is also temporarily expanding capacity at the Washington Relief Shelter, adding an additional 60 beds at that location. More about the city’s upcoming shelter projects can be found at phoenix.gov/solutions.

The Safe Outdoor Space is one of the temporary solutions the city is offering to those who were cleared from the encampment. An open-air shelter with restrooms, showers, meal service, property storage, 24/7 security and a code of conduct for residents, it opened at the beginning of November and has been approved for a three-year permit. Drugs, alcohol and fires are not allowed on the premises.

Schwabenlender said there are still 7,000 adults who have been assessed, are homeless and awaiting housing.

“It’s daunting because homelessness is still increasing,” Schwabenlender said. “For me one of the biggest things is that I’d like to see more urgency around prevention and housing. No one wants a 1,000-person encampment in their neighborhood … so we have to reduce the number of people falling into homelessness. In six months, I would hope our community has come together to not just talk about it, but create action around prevention and keeping people housed.”

“The city will continue working with all of the individuals we’ve helped place indoors to help them on the appropriate path to ending their homelessness,” Couturier said in an email. “While we have complied with the court deadline, we recognize there is still much to be done. The Office of Homeless Solutions will continue to work on strategies to serve every member of our community with long-term housing solutions that benefit our neighborhoods, property owners, businesses as well as those experiencing homelessness.”

Cronkite News students John Leos and Judy Kernen contributed to this story.