Phoenix Dismantles a Homeless Encampment, One Block at a Time

PHOENIX — Rebecca Sutton has no love for her patch of “the Zone,” a sprawling homeless camp on the edge of downtown Phoenix. There are overdoses and shootings, the sidewalk where she sleeps reeks of urine, and someone once burned down her tent.

But now, moving day was looming, and Ms. Sutton did not know where else to go. Wednesday was the start of a court-ordered operation to dismantle the hundreds of tents and tarps that have become an emblem of Phoenix’s twin crises of affordable housing and homelessness.

In March, a judge declared the Zone a “public nuisance” and ordered Phoenix to clear out the area by mid-July. The city is planning to do so block by block, carrying out what it calls an “enhanced cleaning,” starting with Ms. Sutton’s corner at Ninth Avenue and Washington.

“Refusal to permanently relocate may result in citation or arrest,” the city said in fliers handed out to residents around the Zone.

Day after day over the past two weeks, outreach workers with the city and nonprofit groups have been fanning out through the Zone to prepare people and guide them toward other housing. They are trying to nudge the encampment’s roughly 800 residents toward shelters, treatment centers and subsidized motels.

Some have taken them up on the offer. On Wednesday morning, a small army of outreach workers helped people pack their stuff and carried away empty tents.

The city had found shelter for 29 of the roughly 35 people living on the first block to be cleared, said Scott Hall, deputy director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

“We don’t want to see anybody on the streets of Phoenix suffering,” Mr. Hall said. But the city does not have enough open shelter beds or housing slots for all the people living on the streets in the Zone, Mr. Hall and homeless advocates said.

Some people, like Ms. Sutton, worried they would end up sleeping by the railroad tracks or in some remote corner of the city not subject to the judge’s ruling. Shelters are not an option for everyone. Many of them bar pets, and some criminal convictions disqualify people from transitional housing. Ms. Sutton has two cats and a husband with a felony record.

“What can we do?” she said in an interview two days before the city cleanup began. “Where are they going to put us?”

Across the country, cities without enough shelter beds or affordable housing are grappling with that question as they try to answer a public outcry over an epidemic of homelessness.

Recently, some cities have cleared highly visible encampments, prompting criticism that such actions illegally seize and destroy homeless people’s belongings and violate the constitutional rights of people who have little choice but to sleep outside.

In February, The Los Angeles Times reported that sanitation crews demolished an unofficial community-resource center in the city’s skid row in what officials called a regular cleanup. The police in San Diego cleared out sidewalk encampments this spring ahead of the Padres’ Opening Day baseball game. In Houston, city officials worked with local homeless-advocacy groups to clear a tent camp under the highway and move people into housing.

In Phoenix, business owners and neighbors filed a lawsuit last year saying the city had allowed the Zone to spiral into a “humanitarian crisis” marked by violence, property damage, and garbage and human waste in the streets.

The encampment sprawls out from Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, a 13-acre collection of organizations that serves as the main hub for homeless people in Phoenix. The campus has 900 shelter beds, laundry service, showers and medical care, and is one of several aid groups in the neighborhood.

People camping on sidewalks and dirt strips in the Zone say they ended up there after they were kicked out of alleys or parks in other parts of Phoenix.

Phoenix is attempting an incremental approach. Instead of clearing out hundreds of people at once, it is working with residents and homeless services groups to move people off the sidewalks and into shelter, person by person, week by week. Once the city finishes clearing and cleaning a block, it says people will not be allowed to return there to camp.

The city is offering to store people’s belongings for free and says 800 more shelter beds will be available by the end of next year.

Homeless advocates say clearing the Zone will not resolve the high rents or lack of mental-health services and substance abuse treatment that are a root of homelessness. People will simply get pushed into new neighborhoods,or into hiding, and farther away from services.

“This is a shell game,” said Amy Schwabenlender, the chief executive of Phoenix’s Human Services Campus.

Outreach workers say that people are already leaving the Zone ahead of the city’s planned cleanup, migrating into neighborhoods and parks farther west. A weekly census of the Zone fell from 900 people in April to roughly 760 in the first week of May, Ms. Schwabenlender said.

Freddy Brown Jr., who runs a coffin-manufacturing business in the heart of the Zone, was among the business owners who filed the lawsuit last year to force Phoenix to clear out the Zone. He is skeptical that the city’s cleanup plans will have any long-term effect and does not know how Phoenix will keep people from returning.

“We’ve been promised cleanups in the past,” he said. “We’re going to have to monitor it ourselves as residents and neighbors. ”

The people who sleep in tents on Ninth Avenue were both anxious and hopeful in interviews on Tuesday morning, as they prepared for the city to begin clearing their block.

Brian Patrick, who has a working truck, said the city had arranged a free motel room along the freeway north of downtown. He said one of the city’s outreach workers had given him $15 for gas.

Next door, tent-mates Daniel Mackey, 62, and Barry Hayes, 67, said it had been hell living outside in the dirt and heat. Mr. Mackey’s foot, swollen and infected, was impossible to keep clean. Mr. Hayes has chronic bronchitis, and his battery-charged fan barely stirred the stale air as the temperature outside climbed toward 90 degrees.

The men had not wanted to end up in a large shelter, but on Wednesday morning, they agreed to relocate to a 34-bed men’s shelter, with the hope it would lead to a more permanent home.

“We’ve been good, vital human beings all our lives,” Mr. Mackey said. “I just want out of here.”

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