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Phoenix to begin cleaning up sprawling downtown homeless encampment

The area has become a flashpoint in a national debate over how to deal with the growth of street encampments where residents live in deep poverty and some face mental health issues or fentanyl addiction. .

“It’s not a life. It’s an existence,” Shina Sepulveda, who is homeless and lives in the Zone, recently told The New York Times.

A landmark 2018 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Martin v. Boise concluded that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside if they have nowhere to go. City leaders across the West wondered how to run homeless camps when they didn’t have enough space in shelters or supportive housing.

Patience has worn thin in some communities with large homeless populations, and residents and business owners have called on their city officials to do more to keep people off the streets.

The Maricopa County injunction offers a possible pathway for other communities. However, the issue continues to be debated from all sides, including lawyers who argue that cities cannot remove encampments because they have still done too little to provide housing. A federal judge reiterated that stance last month when San Francisco sought to clear tents in its Tenderloin neighborhood.

The number of homeless Phoenix residents has increased significantly, from 771 in 2014 to 3,096 in 2022, according to the city. Up to 1,100 people slept outdoors in the area on any given night.

Last year, a group of residents and business owners, including owners of a sandwich shop near the encampment whose struggles were detailed by The Times, sued Phoenix and demanded the city clean up the area.

The city said it has discretion over how to address homelessness, including how best to move people out of camps.

In late March, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney ruled that the city had essentially stopped enforcing laws in the area and that the area had become a dangerous “public nuisance.” He ordered the city to remove tents and other makeshift structures from sidewalks, as well as dispose of human waste and trash, among other requirements.

Stephen Tully, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said his clients only sued after spending years trying to work with the city to stop homeless people from blocking entrances and streets to businesses, openly using drugs and defecating on their property.


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