Though tent cities in Los Angeles and San Francisco get the most media coverage, the sprawling homeless encampments near Phoenix’s downtown are some of the most disturbing examples of America’s current homelessness crisis. For years, the City of Phoenix has allowed encampments in the area now known as “the Zone” to spread and disorder to metastasize. But last week, an Arizona state judge stepped in to demand that the city take action.

The city’s negligence on public encampments has yielded tragic results. Almost 800 homeless people died in Phoenix’s Maricopa County last year, more than 40 percent more than in 2021. A recent New York Times story described how a local sandwich shop had to deal with outdoor defecation, public masturbation and sex, fires that incinerated trees, and methamphetamine use around the establishment.

Local residents and businesses had brought a case against Phoenix, claiming that the Zone was a “public nuisance” that the city must clean up. Given the piles of trash, needles, tents, human waste, bodies, and the city’s habit of turning a blind eye to them, Arizona State Judge Scott Blaney found it easy to declare that officials had tolerated a situation that, in the words of state public-nuisance law, “interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood.” If the Zone didn’t qualify as a nuisance under these terms, it’s hard to know what would.

Judge Blaney had earlier given the plaintiffs a preliminary win and had pushed Phoenix to act, but the city took only halting steps. This time, the judge demanded that the city remove tents and other structures from the area by November. 

Against claims that Phoenix was helpless against the rising tide of homelessness, the judge noted some inconvenient facts. While the city denied that people were drawn to the area because of its lax enforcement against public drug use and camping, the judge noted that the homeless are often mobile. In fact, in places like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, about a third of the homeless had first become homeless elsewhere. A Seattle study found that the majority of its homeless population had become so outside the city; less than a third originally hailed from there. The proportion of the unsheltered homeless from outside these cities is likely higher.     

Many homeless on the streets have severe problems with drugs, alcohol, and mental illness, as everyone knows. Leaving such impaired people on the street almost guarantees that they will end up dead or in jail. As I testified as a volunteer expert witness in the case, a humane enforcement policy that applies rules about camping and street sleeping but encourages movement to shelter or services can save lives. 

The city argued that any enforcement would conflict with the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ infamous 2018 Martin v. City of Boise decision, which states that cities cannot enforce their anti-camping or sleeping laws without sufficient shelter. It’s now clear that the court’s ruling hasn’t helped the homeless. Homelessness in Ninth Circuit states has increased by more than 25 percent since 2018, even as it dropped around the rest of the country. The proportion of unsheltered homeless in these states has risen even faster. If the goal of the federal courts had been to reduce homelessness and get more people inside, it doesn’t seem to be working.

The plaintiffs also showed that lack of shelter wasn’t the main issue for the homeless in the Zone. Judge Blaney observed that Phoenix’s own polling of the homeless downtown found that only about 14 percent cited a lack of shelter beds for why they stayed outside. More said that they did not like the shelters’ curfews or rules, or that they did not want to part with their possessions.

The plaintiffs also demonstrated that the city does not have to wait decades to construct large new shelters in order to clear the streets humanely. Local groups had proposed the creation of “structured campgrounds,” also known as “sanctioned camping areas.” Cities across the West, including Portland, Oregon, have created these areas—with sanitation, services, and security—as an affordable alternative to street sleeping. They allow cities to provide alternatives to the street, while also allowing them to enforce laws without running afoul of the Boise decision or its more recent iteration from the Ninth Circuit, Johnson v. Grants Pass. Though Phoenix once claimed that it could not create such campgrounds, the city has recently adopted such a proposal based on a plan submitted by the plaintiffs two years ago. 

The Phoenix case is a win for residents and business owners whose lives have been turned upside-down by city officials’ willingness to let chaos reign. In the name of “compassion,” Phoenix’s leaders caused immense suffering for both the homeless and the city. Now they’ll have to deal with the consequences.

Photo: Gregory Clifford/iStock


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