The Maricopa County Superior Court ruled on Wednesday that the city of Phoenix violated the law by enabling the existence of the infamous mass homeless encampment downtown known as “The Zone.”
Judge Scott Blaney declared in his ruling that the city displayed utter disregard for law-abiding citizens, instead issuing preferential treatment to the homeless by tolerating lawbreaking.
“[I]n their zeal to assist homeless individuals occupying the Zone, City personnel appear to be utterly indifferent to the plight of the City’s constituent property owners, their families, and small business owners that are attempting to make a living,” said Blaney. “The City’s refusal to meaningfully enforce statutes and ordinances in the Zone has created a classic siren song to certain individuals that are enticed at their peril by the Zone’s drugs, sex, and lack of societal rules.”
Blaney ordered the city to clear The Zone by Nov. 4, and keep the area clear of encampments and biohazards associated with the homeless (public defecation, drug paraphernalia, trash) thereafter. Blaney directed counsel for all parties to reconvene on Nov. 30 to review the city’s compliance with his order.
Blaney ruled that the city “intentionally” stopped or materially reduced the enforcement of criminal, health, and quality-of-life laws in The Zone; transported homeless individuals into The Zone with taxpayer-funded “courtesy rides” from police officers and community partners like Community Bridges; and generally allowed and even encouraged the occupation of The Zone.
As such, Blaney said the city was to blame for the increase in violent crime, organized crime, public drug use, biohazards, property crimes, prostitution, public indecency, fire hazards, blocked rights of way, environmental deterioration, and businesses’ decline.
The judge noted that prior to 2018, homelessness was limited, encampments weren’t present in the area, and residents considered the area safe. The ruling traced The Zone’s origins to early 2019, when current Mayor Kate Gallego assumed office.
A major argument presented by the city for their neglect of The Zone was a lack of shelter beds. Blaney declared the city failed to provide credible evidence of this claim; he also pointed out that there’s an unknown number of homeless individuals who are homeless by choice. City representatives admitted at trial that they determine whether an individual is “involuntarily homeless” based on self-reporting, not an investigation into that individual’s case. Some, as Blaney said, could well have the means to secure shelter through government benefits or a disability pension.
City representatives also admitted in testimony that it was their strategy to not prosecute individuals within The Zone for any crimes committed. The representatives relied on euphemistic language to describe their decriminalization approach, expressing that they “would prefer” those individuals to not “become justice involved.”
Blaney determined that the city’s approach essentially legalized all crime for any individual within The Zone.
“[I]f a homeless individual is confronted for an alleged crime, the city’s strategy is to pursue services for the individual instead of a conviction,” said Blaney.
As reported by AZ Free News and told to the residents who sued the city, police officers were advised that “the Zone is off-limits to enforcement.” Blaney also noted that the city appeared to reverse this policy of keeping police out of The Zone following his preliminary injunction earlier this year.
Blaney also detailed police’s delayed response to emergency calls, resulting in non-actions like asking a homeless individual to leave private property but refusing to remove those offenders from public easements or sidewalks adjacent to the property, even if that individual was intoxicated or high on drugs.
The mass encampments grew from an impasse of “service resistant” homeless that apparently stumped the city with their preference to life on the streets. These “service resistant,” reportedly didn’t want to follow the rules of the shelters by giving up their contraband of drugs and weapons, their pets, their partners, or the many possessions they’d accumulated that wouldn’t fit in the shelter space. According to a 2022 survey of the homeless conducted by the city, nearly 20 percent expressed this sentiment.
It’s likely the “service resistant” recognized that they could have the best of both worlds: three meals a day and a steady supply of other resources, like heat relief or hygiene packs provided by the city at no cost with no questions asked, and the ability to live “rule-free” and partake in all the drugs, alcohol, and prostitution they desired without fear of punishment from law enforcement.
“Although unthinkable for the general public, there are many individuals in the Zone that choose to live in a tent on the sidewalks or in the street, with three meals each day provided by the Human Services Campus and the ability to engage in antisocial behavior and drug use,” observed Blaney.
The city defended their inaction over the impasse. Their witness, Sheila Harris, attempted to convince Blaney of her plan to implement “permanent supportive housing” or “housing first,” in which homeless individuals are given the housing and then all other problems, like drug addiction, are dealt with afterward. Harris was credited as the main expert behind the city’s current approach in solving homelessness.
Blaney rejected Harris’ proposal. He sided with the perspective that the enforcement of laws resulted in more law and order, not less.
Blaney said that Harris’ “unusually soft” and “more expensive” approach wouldn’t come close to solving the causes behind homelessness or the myriad of dangers they’ve created, namely mental health and drug issues. Rather, Blaney pointed out that the increased enforcement of laws and interventions have proven to incentivize the homeless to either return to live with friends or family, move into transitional housing, or move to other cities with “more permissive laws” and no camping bans.
“According to Dr. Harris, the City of Phoenix’s plan, which she helped create, uses less enforcement and instead looks to an individual’s wants and needs,” said Blaney. “Although the Court agrees that all individuals, homeless or not, deserve to be treated with dignity, the Court does not believe that Dr. Harris’ unusually soft approach to addressing the dangerous and chaotic conditions in the Zone would be effective.”
Blaney also expressed doubt in the city’s estimation that 70 percent of individuals accepted services which translated into a permanent movement from the streets. The judge said that number was potentially misleading, noting that the city wasn’t able to disclose how many of those individuals accepted a “free hotel room for the night” before returning to The Zone the next day.
Unlike the homeless, the city would enforce laws on regular citizens, Blaney noted. The judge pointed out the irony of the city’s arbitrary enforcement of right-of-way law in its handling of a local business who took the opportunity presented by some gas line work to install sculptures in a spot where the homeless had been encamped. Yet, the city took no issue with the homeless encampment in the same spot also in violation of right-of-way law.
On Monday, the Maricopa County Superior Court dismissed Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s case. Tuesday, Lake announced the launch of the “largest ballot chasing operation” in state history, which she clarified was a voter registration initiative for the upcoming election year.
Leading the initiative, backed financially with the Save Arizona Fund, will be longtime grassroots activist Merissa Hamilton.
Lake asserted that her team had proven “beyond a shadow of a doubt” to the Maricopa County Superior Court the brokenness of the state’s election system. However, despite her court loss, Lake pledged to continue to fight for election wins. Lake said that left-wing political actors shouldn’t be the only ones that conduct voter registration.
“We’ve got to work in this rigged, corrupt system, and we can do it,” said Lake.
Lake said that while she opposes mail-in ballots, she believes that the current election system requires participation to win. She claimed that about 500,000 Republican and independent voters combined were sent a mail-in ballot that they didn’t return.
“If this is the game we have to play, if this is their rigged system, we’ll work in their rigged system,” said Lake.
The Arizona Supreme Court granted a review of Lake’s challenge in March.
In Monday’s ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson explained that Lake failed to prove that election officials engaged in misconduct that affected the results of the gubernatorial election. Thompson ruled that Lake’s presentation of evidence that the signature review process was unlawful didn’t provide certainty that a specific number of ballots were impacted by the allegedly quick review.
Thompson cited several testimonies presented by Lake’s witnesses, who reported a preference for a more hasty and thorough signature review process but admitted that the multiple signature reviews required by law were completed. He said it was Lake’s own witnesses that confirmed the counties had abided by election law concerning signature processes, and rejected Lake’s argument based on Reyes v. Cuming that proper elections administration wasn’t adhered to and therefore hindered their ability to argue on a specific number of affected ballots.
“[T]his review was done hastily and possibly not as thoroughly as [complainants] would have liked — but it was done,” wrote Thompson. “This evidence is, in its own right, clear indicia that the comparative process was undertaken in compliance with the statute, putting us outside the scope of Reyes. There is clear and convincing evidence that the elections process for the November 8, 2022, General Election did comply with A.R.S. § 16-550 and that there was no misconduct in the process to support a claim under A.R.S. § 16-672.”
Lake’s team argued that the ballot signatures were processed much too quickly — under one second — to be in compliance with the spirit of the law. Thompson dismissed this argument, saying that time constraints weren’t outlined in the Election Procedures Manual (EPM) and therefore weren’t a standard that could be held against the counties.
“Plaintiff argues that this is so deficient for signature comparison that it amounts to no process at all. Accepting that argument would require the Court to rewrite not only the EPM but Arizona law to insert a minimum time for signature verification and specify the variables to be considered in the process,” stated Thompson. “Plaintiff asks the Court to interpret the word ‘compare’ in A.R.S. § 16-550(A) to require the Court to engage in a substantive weighing of whether Maricopa County’s signature verification process, as implemented, met some analytical baseline. But there are several problems with this. First, no such baseline appears in Section 16-550. Not one second, not three seconds, and not six seconds: no standard appears in the plain text of the statute. No reviewer is required by statute or the EPM to spend any specific length of time on any particular signature.”
Thompson stated the Lake’s witnesses were truthful in their testimonies.
“The Court makes no finding of dishonesty by any witness — and commends those signature reviewers who stepped forward to critique the process as they understood it,” said Thompson.
Thompson declared that no further matters remained on the case, save costs sought by the state and county election officials. Thompson issued a 5:00 pm Tuesday deadline for proposed form of judgment from the defendants, with a 5:00 pm Wednesday deadline for objection to those proposals by Lake’s team.
Last Friday, the Maricopa County Superior Court denied the city of Phoenix’s motion to extend the deadline imposed to clean up The Zone.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney apparently rejected the city’s insistence that they’d begun taking sufficient action.
“The Court interprets this argument as meaning the injunction is unnecessary because the City is already taking steps to abate the horrible conditions in the Zone,” wrote Blaney. “But the Court issued the Preliminary Injunction based, in part, upon the City’s past failure to address the issues in The Zone, as well as the City’s apparent lack of intent to do so until faced with possible judicial intervention.
In their motion to stay the court’s preliminary injunction, the city said it didn’t dispute the current conditions of the homeless encampments, but opposed the actions they were required to take, namely the court’s suggestion of campgrounds. The city took issue with the required deadline of July 10.
“[D]eciding how to spend taxpayers’ money, deliver services, and create new infrastructure for public housing is a legislative, not judicial function,” stated the city. “[T]he order intrudes into local law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion in what appears to be an order to take mandatory enforcement action — ignoring any analysis of the facts on the ground and ordering sweeping relief in its stead.”
The city further claimed that Blaney violated the constitutional separation of powers. It also seemed to question the judge’s description of homeless individuals’ conduct as a “nuisance.” Blaney’s ruling outlined the many ways that The Zone qualified as a public nuisance. The city said it couldn’t guarantee cleaning up The Zone.
“While the City seeks to maintain a clean and crime-free environment for its residents, those are outcomes that the City simply cannot guarantee, even with the expenditure of significant resources,” stated the city.
The city also claimed that Blaney’s order didn’t reflect public interest or the true desires of the Phoenix community. That contradicts the numerous business owners and residents of The Zone and elsewhere in the city that have complained about the homeless crisis.
“The City’s policies are the product of community meetings with policymakers, the gathering of information from all relevant stakeholders, and the advice of experts at the City and throughout the community,” wrote the city. “To circumvent this process and supplant the City’s plans with the Court’s own judgment is against public interest.”
The homeless crisis spiraled following the election of Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, in 2019.
The Maricopa County Superior Court ruled in late March that the city of Phoenix was at fault for the current state of The Zone, and imposed a cleanup deadline this summer. The ruling came days after city officials promised to meet to discuss solutions for The Zone, in the wake of back-to-back murders.
Details of a settlement in a separate, federal case haven’t been publicized yet.
Democratic leadership has generally downplayed the urgency of the public nuisances and dangers presented by The Zone.
Democrats like to believe they are the party of compassion and kindness, but the reality in most blue cities says otherwise. For years, homeless encampments have been springing up in liberal-run cities like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And in recent years, this trend made its way into Phoenix.
Just blocks from the state capitol, amidst what was once a thriving business district, a sprawling encampment of around 1,000 homeless has come to be known as “The Zone.” It’s a place where drug use, drug deals, defecation, urination, sexual acts, assaults, rape, and murder are frequently committed out in the open—often with little to no consequences. The problem has even gotten so bad that the Phoenix Fire Department won’t respond to calls inside The Zone without assistance from the Phoenix Police Department and assurance that the scene of the incident is secure.
But crime within The Zone is only one part of the problem…
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