Judge Denies the City of Phoenix’s Motion to Dismiss Residents’ Lawsuit Over Homeless Encampment ‘The Zone’

A lawsuit filed last August challenging “the largest homeless encampment in Arizona” is going ahead after a judge denied the City of Phoenix’s motion to dismiss. Residents who live near “the Zone,” which has grown to over 1,500 people, allege that the city has failed or refused to enforce criminal, health, or quality of life statutes to improve the Zone.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Tully said in his January 16 ruling that dismissal wasn’t warranted because the city didn’t meet the standard where “as a matter of law plaintiffs would not be entitled to relief under any interpretation of the facts susceptible of proof.” He found that the plaintiffs properly pleaded their case and supported a private cause of action for public nuisance.

The city had argued that discretionary enforcement actions, such as enforcing ordinances against public urination or camping, cannot be compelled by a judge.

Located just a few blocks south of the state capitol, the Zone is made up of tents or makeshift shelters from crates and tarps and strewn with shopping carts and discarded furniture. The Goldwater Institute said it’s “led to a spike in violent crimes like shootings, stabbings, and rapes, as well as the destruction of dozens of businesses in the area.” One homeless person complained to NPR that the Zone is full of flies and cockroaches.

The Zone has grown substantially within the last couple of years. In 2021, there were only about 250 people living there. That increased to over a thousand last summer, prompting the lawsuit. The city spent $50 million on the homeless in 2021 and $70 million in 2022.

The growth was prompted in part by a 2018 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Martin v. Boise, which held that people cannot be ticketed for camping if there are no shelter beds available for them. It struck down a Boise, Idaho law that banned urban camping.

After that decision, the city reportedly told Phoenix Police officers to take no action. Phoenix New Times submitted a public records request for urban camping citations in recent years, and discovered that they had decreased from 283 in 2017 down to just nine in 2021.

The lawsuit, filed by 15 plaintiffs, argued that the city has not only failed to provide enough housing, but it isn’t enforcing ordinances that would make the area safer either. It cited a “humanitarian crisis” and problems that include “loitering, disturbing the peace, drunken and disorderly conduct.” The lawsuit cited a 1985 Arizona Supreme Court decision which held that inviting vagrants into an area can constitute an illegal nuisance.

Some of the plaintiffs have businesses, and say they have lost customers or have been forced to shut down. They’ve had their windows smashed and cleaned feces off their lawns. Some can no longer access their property due to all the tents on the sidewalks.

An investigation by 12News found in October that the city dedicated $100 million of COVID-19 relief funds to address homelessness and affordable housing, but had only spent 10 percent of it.

The Goldwater Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, pointing out that Arizona law forbids the city from “maintaining” any “activity” that can pollute public waterways. The Zone is located close to the Salt River. The group believes that The Zone is violating environmental laws and is a nuisance.

The plaintiffs want a judge to declare the area a public nuisance under Arizona law and force the city to clear or move the encampment. The lawsuit suggests as a solution moving the encampment to another city lot and creating a “structured camping space” that it maintains. Another solution would be providing enough shelter beds to resume enforcing its anti-camping ordinances.

The Zone is located between Eighth and 13th Avenues along Jefferson, Madison and Jackson Streets – next to Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, which provides services for the homeless, but it only has 900 beds. There are also other major social services organizations like André House and Central Arizona Shelter Services nearby. Last spring, the city added a water station and 10 outdoor toilets.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit late last year to halt the city from resuming its sweeps of The Zone, which had been put on hold in January 2022. However, the city resumed them in December with the judge’s permission. The sweeps force the homeless to temporarily move their belongings and shelter while the city sanitizes the streets and removes trash.

The judge said he would set a trial date next.

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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News NetworkFollow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Homeless Person” by MART PRODUCTION.



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