Phoenix Officials Are Challenged In Court To Address Concentration Of Homeless In Downtown Zone

Phoenix Officials Are Challenged In Court To Address Concentration Of Homeless In Downtown Zone

By Terri Jo Neff |

A lawsuit filed this week by several residents, business owners, and property owners within a multi-block “zone” of downtown Phoenix seeks a court order requiring city officials to do something about the unabating homelessness crisis impacting the 19 plaintiffs.

According to the lawsuit, the largest concentration of homeless persons in Arizona has developed on properties owned by or operated by the City of Phoenix in an area between 7th and 15th Avenues and between Van Buren and Grant Streets.

Many of the persons who have constructed semi-permanent tent dwellings on public sidewalks and rights of way are experiencing mental health problems and / or drug and alcohol addiction, but city officials have enacted policies which essentially ignore those issues to the detriment of the community, the plaintiffs allege.

“Not only is the City of Phoenix failing to provide these individuals with housing and needed services, it refuses to enforce in and around the Zone quality-of-life ordinances prohibiting loitering, disturbing the peace, drunken and disorderly conduct, drug use, domestic violence, and obstructing streets, sidewalks, or other public grounds,” the lawsuit contends. “The City’s policies are not rationally designed to address any of the social ills facing the residents of the Zone and are exacerbating rather than alleviating their problems.”

Those policies not only permit illegal conduct on Phoenix-controlled public lands but city officials further encourage problems by directing homeless persons from around the city to the Zone, according to the lawsuit.

“In the Zone and its environs, laws are violated with impunity; residents are subject to violence, property damage, and other criminal and civil violations of laws designed to protect the quality of life of residents; property values have been erased; trash and human waste litter streets and yards; and most tragically, a great humanitarian crisis unfolds as homeless residents of the Zone die on a daily basis,” the lawsuit notes.

The plaintiffs seeking an order from Judge Alison Bachus of the Maricopa County Superior Court that the public encampments in Zone has created a public nuisance for which plaintiffs have a constitutional right to seek abatement of the nuisance

In addition, the lawsuit seeks an order from Bachus prohibiting city officials from taking any further action that will exacerbate the current nuisance and a separate order requiring the city to immediately abate the nuisance.

The lawsuit even points to several options available to city officials, including removal of the encampments to other public lands where they would not constitute a nuisance. Another option permitted by a 2019 federal ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is to create “structured camping grounds” on city property where cleanliness could be maintained along with compliance of laws and ordinances.

A more traditional option would be the availability of enough shelter space so that public camping could be prohibited. However, the lawsuit concedes the Ninth Circuit ruling currently prohibits enforcement of a public camping ban because City of Phoenix officials have failed to provide sufficient resources to address the homelessness issue.

That 2019 ruling requires municipalities to allow homeless individuals to camp on some public lands if there are not enough shelter beds. But nothing in the ruling, Martin v City of Boise, prohibits officials from enforcing quality of life ordinances and criminal laws, the plaintiffs argue.

Those plaintiffs are represented by Michael Bailey, Stephen Tully, and Ilan Wurman. They contend city officials are using the Ninth Circuit ruling “as an excuse to completely wash its hands of this crisis, leaving the homeless individuals and the surrounding neighborhood in an unimaginably horrific situation.”

The lawsuit adds Phoenix officials are entitled to adopt “irrational policies but if its policies create a nuisance and cause damage to the residents, workers, and property owners in the Zone, as they have, then the City is liable for those damages and the court may enjoin the nuisance.”