Phoenix tent camp is gone, but homeless crisis persists

By | November 5, 2023

The tents and campfires were gone. The sidewalks where people had built makeshift shelters with wooden pallets and blue tarpaulins were empty. On Friday, all that remained “The Zone,” a sprawling homeless camp in downtown Phoenixthere were discarded clothes, trash, and questions about what’s next.

For the first time in years, residents said the area appeared virtually empty, gutted after an Arizona judge declared the area a “public nuisance” earlier this year and ordered Phoenix to dismantle the encampment by Saturday.

Housing advocates say the operation appears to have removed — at least temporarily — a notorious symbol of the homeless crisis in American cities.

“It looks like some kind of science fiction movie,” said Joel Coplin, whose home and art gallery are in the heart of the Zone. “Overnight, they were all gone.” He said he often woke up outside his bedroom window to the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances responding to fights, shootings, fires and overdoses.

Phoenix began cleaning the area in May, going block by block to persuade homeless residents to move into hotel rooms, shelter beds or other short-term housing. About 600 people left the encampment to find temporary housing, the city said, at a cost of about $20 million.

Phoenix is ​​also opening a $13 million campground in a vacant lot nearby, with shaded tents, food, bathrooms and showers that can accommodate 300 people who don’t want to – or can’t – stay there. ‘interior.

“It was a monumental effort,” said Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions. “It’s a huge difference.”

But housing advocates say it has done little to address the lack of affordable housing, mental health care and drug treatment, fueling Arizona’s broader homeless problem.

Phoenix’s shelters are at capacity and homeless advocacy groups say the city still needs tens of thousands of additional public housing units to serve a homeless population that has increased by 70 percent, to more than 9,000 people over the last six years.

“It hasn’t ended homelessness,” said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, a group of organizations that serve the Area. “It moved them from a homeless place to a sheltered place, and that’s good.” But how many more people will be left homeless?

For now, Prisella Goodwin said she’s happy enough to escape the tent where she’s been sleeping along a strip of asphalt known as the Jackson Curve, the last section of the area cleared this week.

Some residents of the latter neighborhood had decided to leave before cleaning crews and outreach workers arrived before dawn, carrying overflowing shopping carts and wheeled bags to parks and alleys that are not subject to the judge’s cleaning order.

But Ms. Goodwin, 66, who said she had been homeless on and off since she was 14, said she was happy to accept the city’s offer to move to a hotel 30 minutes away north of downtown.

“I hope this will open a door,” she said while sitting in her hotel’s breakfast room.

City officials say about 80 percent of area residents have accepted offers of temporary housing over the past five months. Ms Milne, from the Office of Homeless Solutions, said most were still housed, but some had returned to the streets.

“The city is not taking any victory laps,” Ms. Milne said. “Real additional work must begin. »

The encampment sprung up in a neighborhood of Phoenix’s largest homeless shelters and homeless organizations, where hundreds of people still sleep, eat and receive medical care, a mail and help applying for jobs, housing or ID cards.

On Friday afternoon, a few dozen people seeking relief from the 85-degree afternoon sun crouched on sidewalks next to new signs reading, “This area is closed to camping.”

“It’s definitely better,” said Joe Faillace, owner of Submarine shop at the old station and one of several business owners and local residents who sued Phoenix, arguing that the city had allowed the area to metastasize into a crime nightmare by failing to enforce rules against loitering, drug use and camping.

Still, several homeless people said the cleanup went beyond removing tents and tarps. Once the area was cleared, they said police no longer allowed them to sit or stand on the sidewalks.

A 46-year-old man who gave his name as BJ said he moved from the street to a shelter bed, but said the fenced-off campus became claustrophobic and chaotic after a while and he sometimes needed to leave.

“They say we’re not allowed to walk around here anymore,” he said.

As he and three friends stood on the corner, a police car drove past them.

“Don’t hang around here anymore,” an officer said over the loudspeaker. “You need to go forward.”

David Iversen reports contributed.

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