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VanDerHeyden: Even San Francisco is changing course on homelessness — why won’t Phoenix?


In the liberal haven of San Francisco, where one of the worst homelessness crises in the nation has been raging nonstop for years, officials may finally be taking the first steps toward changing course. Phoenix leaders should pay close attention.

San Francisco is infamously one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden, drug-filled and homeless-overrun cities in America.

Over 400 homeless people died on the streets from fentanyl overdoses in 2022 alone. One man was arrested over 60 times in San Francisco for crimes such as burglary, theft, and drug use — but was allowed back on the streets. School children getting off the bus to go home are regularly forced to walk through crowds of homeless people and drug dealers.

There are horrific accounts of children being found dead in the streets after being sexually assaulted and overdosing on drugs.

Hellish as San Francisco’s crisis is, certain city officials have apparently started trying to right the ship. Case in point: a San Francisco city attorney has appealed a ruling from a U.S. district court judge that banned cleanup sweeps of homeless encampments.

“There are people living on our streets who refuse shelter, and there are those who have secured a shelter bed but still choose to sleep on the streets,” said City Attorney David Chiu. “It is unreasonable to tell the city that it is powerless to do anything in those situations.”

The case was brought by homeless advocates who accuse San Francisco of violating the 2019 precedent set by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. City of Boise, which declared that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause to punish people for “involuntarily” sleeping on the streets. Since the City of Boise decision, the issue for city officials nationwide — including in Phoenix, where similar litigation is also underway — has turned on a basic question: what does it mean to be “involuntarily homeless?”

Phoenix officials have argued that the city cannot enforce its own laws against public camping, loitering, or urinating and defecating in public, because the City of Boise ruling forbids them from “criminalizing” “involuntary homelessness.” But if an individual is offered shelter and refuses to accept, that person is no longer “involuntarily homeless” — rather, he or she has made a choice to stay on the streets instead of accepting shelter.

This is a concept that even city officials in San Francisco, one of America’s most crime-ridden cities, are beginning to understand. Yet the city of Phoenix refuses to act — thereby leaving all its citizens in the homeless “Zone” — both law-abiding property and business owners and those living on the streets — in danger.

It’s no secret that “The Zone” is plagued by drugs and crime, including rape, murder, arson, and prostitution — yet Phoenix’s leadership seem content to let this continue. How many people must suffer in the streets of Phoenix before city leaders shift course? Why is it that San Francisco, the city that stands as a beacon of progressive politics, is starting to realize things need to change, while Phoenix continues to allow lawlessness to take over its streets?

Do Phoenix officials need to let their city reach the levels of crime and homelessness that San Francisco is known for before they take action to enforce the law?

These are questions that the citizens of Phoenix need to start asking. If San Francisco can start to make a change, Phoenix can too. Otherwise, the Valley of the Sun will become unrecognizable.

Austin VanDerHeyden is the Municipal Affairs Liaison at the Goldwater Institute.