Lawlessness, crime, violence, and death. They’ve become regular occurrences plaguing “The Zone”—the vast swath of downtown Phoenix that has turned into one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. And the crisis consuming people’s lives is only getting worse, underscoring why the city must take action to enforce the law and protect all its citizens’ rights. Fortunately, an increasing number of voices are calling on the city to take action.
On November 12, Phoenix police were called to The Zone after the burned remains of a 20-to-24-week-old fetus were found in the street. Unfortunately, this horrifying and despicable incident is not the only time that police have been summoned for such tragic reasons. Less than three weeks later, on December 1, police again responded to a fire a block away from The Zone. After police extinguished the fire, they found (adult) human remains.
Yet the city has spent months, even years, allowing and even encouraging people to live in The Zone, even transporting people there from other neighborhoods, and refusing to effectively patrol the area. It’s outrageous for the city to deny police protection for property and business owners who live in the neighborhood. Hardworking Phoenicians should be able to rely on the public services their tax dollars pay for—and their elected officials owe them a duty to enforce the laws. Yet the city does nothing.
That has led to two simultaneous lawsuits against the city. The first, filed in state court in August, involves a coalition of small business owners, residents, and community members who have lived in the area—some for generations—who sued the city for maintaining a nuisance in the downtown area. (The Goldwater Institute filed an amicus brief in support of these citizens’ rights.) The second, filed in November—long after the state case had been fully briefed and argued in front of a judge—was filed in federal court by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who claim the city is maintaining The Zone in “inhumane” conditions (which is true) and that it’s unconstitutional for the city to enforce its longstanding laws against camping on public streets (which is not true).
On Friday night, the judge in the federal case issued an order barring the city from enforcing its anti-camping laws against individuals who are incapable of finding shelter. That ruling relied on the often-misinterpreted Ninth Circuit decision Martin v. Boise, which declared it cruel and unusual to punish people for sleeping on public streets if they “ha[ve] no choice in the matter.” The Martin decision did not strike down anti-camping laws—in fact, the court said “our holding does not cover individuals who do have access to adequate temporary shelter…. Nor do we suggest that a [city] with insufficient shelter can never criminalize the act of sleeping outside…[or] obstruct[ing] public rights of way or the erection of [tents].” But Phoenix politicians have used the ruling as an excuse not to enforce laws against loitering, camping, and other illegal acts, and on Friday night, the judge in the federal case against Phoenix barred the city from enforcing anti-camping laws unless the city first proves that people are refusing to go to shelters.
That’s easy enough to prove. Late last week, the city announced a so-called cleanup of The Zone—actually just a temporary cleaning of a single block in The Zone—during which it approached about 50 people living on the streets. About 30 chose to go to shelters, with the rest preferring to remain on the street because “it is their home.” Yet the city has announced no plans to take meaningful action against those who insist on breaking the law.
This negligence is motivated, at least in part, by a misguided sense of compassion for the poor. But while homelessness is certainly unfortunate, there’s nothing compassionate about the city fostering an enormous homeless encampment on the streets of Phoenix, exposing all of its residents in The Zone to violence, pollution, disease, arson, and even murder. And there’s certainly nothing compassionate about encouraging the vagrant population to ruin the livelihoods and properties of residents who have spent decades, even generations, paying taxes for public safety services that they’re now being denied.
Despite the lack of compassion shown by the Phoenix government, there are still many people working toward meaningful solutions. On December 1, Catherine Miranda, a Democrat recently elected to represent State Senate District 11 (which covers much of central and south Phoenix), issued a blistering rebuttal of the city’s excuses for mishandling the homelessness crisis.
“The state must ensure Phoenix enforces its existing laws against street sleeping and camping,” she wrote in The Arizona Republic. “In Texas, Missouri and elsewhere, state legislatures have passed bipartisan laws requiring cities to take action. While supporters of the failed status quo claim this ‘criminalizes’ homeless, the cities that enforce such laws see reductions in homeless deaths, and little or no actual arrests.”
Miranda also called on the city to build more structured campgrounds to use as shelters, which would provide everyone on the streets with places to stay. She then proposed an offer to anyone who believes that the city should continue down its current path: take a walk with her through her district and see for yourself the devastation that the city has allowed.
In addition to Miranda’s statements, after fed-up citizens demanded action, the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously and in bipartisan fashion passed several motions to start addressing a similar homeless crisis currently facing the city of Tucson.
Elected officials around the state are trying to work across the aisle to provide solutions for the people who so desperately need it. Now, Phoenix leaders need to fulfill their duties and protect the hardworking Phoenicians they serve.
If they choose to continue down this same path, it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes again.
Austin VanDerHeyden is the Municipal Affairs Liaison for the Goldwater Institute.
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