By Corinne Murdock |
Downtown Phoenix’s residents experienced a glimmer of hope in the ongoing homeless crisis last month after a court declared the city to blame. If the city doesn’t appeal the court’s order, it may be the end of the massive encampment known as “The Zone.”
The decision flies in the face of the precedent set by other cities: plans and spending that yield no favorable results, ultimately forcing the residents to learn to live with the crime and squalor. Yet, Phoenix may no longer be resigned to the same fate borne by most other major cities. Downtown property and business owners were vindicated in their belief: city officials’ plans, spending, and promises alone don’t qualify as results.
Requiring results of the city could mean The Zone may cease to exist in the near future — restoring a square mile of the current wasteland of city-sanctioned slums into a healthy business district — but only if the city of Phoenix decides to follow through on the court-ordered action to resolve the homeless crisis. Cleaning up The Zone would mean finding shelter and services for around 800 homeless residing in the area, according to a census conducted by the Human Services Campus late last month.
The first bout of legal relief came for The Zone’s residents and business owners after the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled last month that the city of Phoenix was at fault for The Zone. The court ordered the city to show that it’s taking “meaningful steps” toward fixing The Zone. They have until July 10 to do so, with a trial date scheduled for June.
The ruling came days after the city of Phoenix promised to finally meet to fix The Zone, a promise prompted by back-to-back murders in the encampment.
Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute, Timothy Sandefur, who submitted an amicus brief in the case, told AZ Free News that this ruling was a good first step toward remedying The Zone — but that the city has a ways to go.
“I think this is a first step and a very important one,” said Sandefur.
Sandefur said that the superior court indicated the best next steps for the city would be to build structured campgrounds and establish treatment programs, rather than continue with their current “housing first” approach.
However, notice of a settlement in a separate, federal case issued recently may complicate matters in finally getting the city of Phoenix to fix The Zone.
In the Arizona District Court case, the ACLU and the city held mediation about three weeks ago.
Details of the settlement weren’t made public. The Phoenix City Council plans to convene April 18 in an executive session — a meeting not open to the public — to discuss the terms of the settlement. At some point after, the Phoenix City Council will announce the settlement terms during a public meeting.
Of note, the city attempted to dismiss the superior court case — but not the federal case. The city also spent just shy of $100,000 fighting the superior court case.
Ilan Wurman, another lawyer on the lawsuit against the city, told AZ Free News that the court’s order to fix The Zone was thorough to the point where he imagined it would be difficult for the city to fight it.
“The court’s ruling is such a thorough victory for the business and property owners that it will be very hard for the city to overcome it at a full trial on the merits,” said Wurman. “We hope the city does the right thing and considers a settlement or simply follows through on the court’s instructions — that will save a lot of expense to taxpayers and it will be better for the unsheltered community as well.”
In remarks to the press, the city stresses that it has allocated around $140 million to solve the homeless crisis. However, there’s a difference between commitment and spending. Of the $120 million in COVID-19 relief funds received to address the homeless crisis, the city has only spent about 10 percent.
Of what little the city has spent for the homeless crisis, the Maricopa County Superior Court assessed that none of this spending has actually mitigated the crisis.
“With few exceptions, the action items about which city representatives testified centered around the creation of more bureaucracy, additional staff positions, and obtaining additional funding for programs to vaguely address homelessness in general,” stated Judge Scott Blaney. “The Court received very little evidence — if any — that the City intends to take immediate, meaningful action to protect its constituent business owners, their employees, and residents from the lawlessness and chaos in the Zone.”
However, in a recent interview, Mayor Kate Gallego indicated that the city was attempting to follow through on a “housing first” approach, and claimed that the city was “working very hard” to fix the homeless crisis.
As AZ Free News previously reported, “housing first” — also referred to as “permanent supportive” or “affordable” housing — holds the theory that the homeless will choose to seek employment, become financially responsible, and receive mental health care and/or substance abuse treatment if food and housing are provided. The theory also posits that enabling the homeless to choose their housing and support services will make them more likely to remain in that housing and stick with self-improvement initiatives.
Gallego shared that the city was working on launching seven new shelter options in partnership with various organizations, and that the city is hoping to receive additional help from both the state and federal government. She mentioned that she would meet with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Gallego disclosed that she recently spoke with Gov. Katie Hobbs about the homeless crisis — a conversation that had last occurred during Hobbs’ inauguration week in January. The mayor said that Hobbs was looking for additional resources to provide the city.
“Residents should feel confident that they’re going to see changes,” said Gallego. “The message we want to send to the public is that we recognize it’s a problem and we want to solve it.”
When questioned, Gallego didn’t directly deny that the city wouldn’t appeal the superior court’s decision.
In another interview, Gallego claimed that adequate law enforcement was taking place in The Zone. Gallego’s claim conflicted with the various investigative reports and witness accounts that depicted minimal law enforcement in The Zone.
“We treat every member of our community the same when they commit a crime. We want to be consistent and to enforce breaking the law,” said Gallego. “If you commit a crime, it is the same regardless of your housing status.”
However, the “Gaydos and Chad Show” testified to witnessing a myriad of criminal activity during a recent excursion in The Zone — including drug use, public defecation and urination, and prostitution — but not seeing any police presence. In response, Gallego claimed the city’s police were “too aggressive” when handling the homeless. The mayor cited the Arizona District Court case against the city as justification for her claim. However, that lawsuit concerned whether the city could enforce camping and sleeping bans, as well as whether the city had a right to seize or throw away items from homeless encampments as part of cleanup efforts. The lawsuit does not address police response to criminal activity.
Watch: The Zone – Homelessness and Crime Rampant in Phoenix
Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.