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Goldwater Investigates Phoenix’s Homelessness Crisis and Demands Action

February 29, 2024

Goldwater Institute

Phoenix’s Homelessness Crisis

Cities nationwide are struggling under a homelessness epidemic, but the situation is particularly grim in Phoenix, where city leaders set aside a section of downtown as an unofficial open-air shelter known colloquially as “The Zone.” Over 1,000 people now reside there, sleeping in tents on the sidewalks, where the city effectively ceased to enforce laws against drug use, public sex, defecation and urination on public and private property, and even violent crimes.

But Goldwater and a coalition of property and business owners demanded action.

People in Phoenix's Homeless "Zone"

For years, Phoenix officials have been shunting the city’s homeless population into “The Zone.” And city leaders have reportedly instructed police officers to take no action, resulting in an area that has now become one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments.

A group of Phoenix citizens filed a lawsuitarguing that the city is effectively destroying their property by ignoring its responsibilities, and fostering a nuisance in the middle of the city. That last point is based on a 1985 Arizona Supreme Court decision in which the justices held that inviting vagrants into an area can constitute an illegal nuisance. But it’s not just the crime—it’s also the pollution. People in The Zone report that its inhabitants urinate and defecate on the streets, on sidewalks, and on both buildings and vacant property. But Arizona law forbids the city from “maintaining” any “activity” that can pollute public waterways—and The Zone is within easy walking distance of the Salt River. As we noted in our friend of the court brief, by maintaining The Zone, the city is violating state environmental laws.

In April, a judge in Maricopa County agreed, declaring that the city is violating the state’s nuisance laws and ordering it to take steps to clean up The Zone by July 10, 2023.

Explore our articles on the issue:

Homelessness, Crime Surge in Phoenix’s ‘The Zone’ – Goldwater Demands Action

Timothy Sandefur – October 4, 2022

It’s known as “The Zone”—a vast section of downtown Phoenix where 1,000 homeless people have set up camp. And it’s led to a spike in violent crimes like shootings, stabbings, and rapes, as well as the destruction of dozens of businesses in…

City of Phoenix Says: If You Don’t Like Homeless Encampments, Vote Us Out

Timothy Sandefur – November 1, 2022

Last Thursday, lawyers for a group of Phoenix business owners argued their case against the city of Phoenix for maintaining one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States. “The Zone,” a huge area of downtown that…

Citizens Force Arizona County to Take Action on Homelessness

Austin VanDerHeyden – November 18, 2022

Violent criminals roaming free. Businesses plundered. Livelihoods smashed into bits. Law-abiding citizens in Tucson, Arizona, are fed up with the plague of crime brought about by a growing homelessness…

Crisis Spirals in Phoenix’s Homeless ‘Zone’—But Some Are Demanding Action

Austin VanDerHeyden – December 20, 2022

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…

Goldwater Investigates

Goldwater collaborated with AZ Free News to produce a series of investigative reports on homelessness in “The Zone.” Buckle up…what they found was truly shocking. 

Part 1: A Wasteland of Corpses, Living and Dead: A Devastating Inside Look at Phoenix’s Homeless Zone

Intense poverty, frequent crime, social instability, high mortality, poor living standards: these qualities describe third-world countries. They also describe “The Zone”: the sprawling encampment of over 1,000 homeless in downtown Phoenix just blocks from the state capitol and amidst what was once a thriving business district. It’s an area where law and order don’t seem to exist; so much so that locals have given the area another, much darker nickname: “The Thunderdome.”

The crisis reached a new high after the discovery of a premature baby’s remains several weeks before Thanksgiving last year, burned in the middle of the street. A month later, a similar grisly fate befell a homeless man.

“That child burned… that was the beginning of the end for me. I don’t know why that hit us so hard,” said Karl Freund, who was leasing a building in The Zone and is suing the city of Phoenix over their handling of the homeless crisis. “Someone set a child on fire, and then two weeks later somebody burned a body just a block away. Then you see the people that are so mentally ill that you can’t place them in society. We walked out a year ago to see a girl masturbating 20 feet away from my car in the parking lot.”

Death and depravity are a common occurrence in The Zone.

Homeless sit outside of Angie Ojile’s business and other businesses in The Zone.

Homeless use drugs inside Phoenix’s sprawling encampment known as The Zone.

Angie’s property and others are regularly bombarded with human waste, fires, garbage, and drug use.

A fire burns inside The Zone.

Part 2: City-Sanctioned Slums: The Environmental Impact Of Phoenix’s Homeless Zone

You’ll know you’re in The Zone by the smell.

The suffocating stench of urine and feces. Rotting garbage. The occasional whiffs of fentanyl, or the synthetic drug Spice clouding the air. Dead bodies. No, it’s not a Third World nation—it’s a lawless encampment of over 1,000 homeless people in downtown Phoenix, where crime is rampant, and the city does virtually nothing about it.

The city’s inaction provoked a lawsuit by business owners in the Zone who are suffering the consequences of the unchecked homelessness crisis. This week, a Maricopa County judge issued a preliminary ruling, finding that the city has “intentionally stopped—or at least materially decreased—enforcement of criminal, health, and other quality of life statutes and ordinances in [T]he Zone,” effectively making it “off-limits to [law] enforcement.” That’s good news for the business owners, but the decision is just a first step in the long process of solving the problem. 

Karl Freund — who was leasing a building in The Zone and is suing the city over the homeless crisis — described to AZ Free News a state of apathy toward improvement for both the homeless and those assigned to handle it.

“You see trash everywhere. These people just don’t give a flip anymore, you know?” said Freund. “I see these people smoking meth wide out in the open. I’ll go over to them and tell them to leave. Then they’ll just go to another corner.”

Phoenix homeless Zone trash.

A fire burns in The Zone.

Joel Coplin has his art gallery in The Zone and has witnessed one of the many death that occur there.

Part 3: Hope For The Zone: City Of Phoenix Ordered To Solve Homeless Crisis It Created

Downtown Phoenix’s residents experienced a glimmer of hope in the ongoing homeless crisis last month after a court declared the city to blame. If the city doesn’t appeal the court’s order, it may be the end of the massive encampment known as “The Zone.”

The decision flies in the face of the precedent set by other cities: plans and spending that yield no favorable results, ultimately forcing the residents to learn to live with the crime and squalor. Yet, Phoenix may no longer be resigned to the same fate borne by most other major cities. Downtown property and business owners were vindicated in their belief: city officials’ plans, spending, and promises alone don’t qualify as results.

Requiring results of the city could mean The Zone may cease to exist in the near future — restoring a square mile of the current wastelandof city-sanctioned slums into a healthy business district — but only if the city of Phoenix decides to follow through on the court-ordered action to resolve the homeless crisis. Cleaning up The Zone would mean finding shelter and services for around 800 homeless residing in the area, according to a census conducted by the Human Services Campus late last month.

The first bout of legal relief came for The Zone’s residents and business owners after the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled last month that the city of Phoenix was at fault for The Zone. The court ordered the city to show that it’s taking “meaningful steps” toward fixing The Zone. They have until July 10 to do so, with a trial date scheduled for June.

The ruling came days after the city of Phoenix promised to finally meet to fix The Zone, a promise prompted by back-to-back murders in the encampment.

Taking Action in Court

Cities across the United States are experiencing increased homelessness and crime, thanks in part to city officials’ failure to enforce existing laws against vagrancy, property destruction, and even theft. Phoenix leaders have implemented a policy to shift the homeless population into a large—and growing—area of downtown called “The Zone.” Now one of the largest homeless encampments in the country, The Zone is estimated to comprise over 1,000 people. And the resulting crime and pollution is destroying businesses in the area—businesses whose owners are innocent Phoenicians simply trying to earn a living.

They’ve filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that The Zone constitutes a nuisance. Relying on a 1985 Arizona Supreme Court decision which held that inviting vagrants into a neighborhood can create a nuisance situation, the plaintiffs argue that the city has violated its legal obligation to protect the lives and property of innocent citizens.

Explore the case:

Demanding That Phoenix Officials Enforce the Law in Massive Homeless Encampment

Brown v. Phoenix

Victory in Court—But the Fight Isn’t Over

A Maricopa County judge found that the city of Phoenix is maintaining an illegal “public nuisance” by encouraging a population of over 1,000 homeless people to reside in tents in a vast swath of downtown referred to as “The Zone.” The decision, a preliminary ruling in a case brought against the city by law-abiding property and business owners in the area, finds that the city has “intentionally stopped—or at least materially decreased—enforcement of criminal, health, and other quality of life statutes and ordinances in [T]he Zone,” effectively making it “off-limits to [law] enforcement.” In fact, the city has not only declined to enforce laws against public defecation and urination, drug use, and even violence, but it has regularly transported people to The Zone to live there indefinitely. And those actions, the court said in its 23-page ruling, constitute an illegal “public nuisance,” which the city has until July 10 to eliminate.

Throughout the lawsuit, Phoenix officials have rationalized their refusal to enforce the law by claiming their hands are tied by the Ninth Circuit’s 2019 ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, in which the court held that it’s “cruel and unusual punishment” to arrest people for “involuntarily” sleeping on the streets. Since “human beings are biologically compelled to rest,” the Ninth Circuit declared, punishing people for “involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public” was cruel—like punishing them for “an illness or disease.”

But that case has little to do with the Phoenix situation, where people have been permitted to live indefinitely on the streets—even when they refuse to accept room in a homeless shelter. In fact, today’s ruling rebuked Phoenix for its “glaring misinterpretation” of the Martin decision. The “most glaring” example of that misreading, the court said, “is in the inference that anyone who has erected a tent or other structure in the public rights of way is intrinsically unable to otherwise obtain shelter.” Such a notion is nonsense: people can choose alternatives, and in fact virtually all of the people now residing in The Zone are not there because they are “biologically compelled” to be. What’s more, even if its interpretation of the Martin decision were correct, “the city could readily [fix the problem] through the creation of structured campgrounds. But the city has refused to pursue this viable, cost-effective option despite admitting its viability.”

This ruling offers hope not just for the homeless themselves—who, after all, don’t deserve to be left in a ghettoized section of the city’s roads—but to the ignored small-business owners in the area, who are forced to try to earn a living in the midst of such chaos. Their tax dollars are supposed to pay the city for police services to protect their rights; instead, their rights have been disregarded by a city policy that allows homeless people—many of them mentally ill or addicted to drugs—to scare away their customers, assault their employees, and pollute their property. Today’s decision will not cure the problem overnight, but it is a welcome and long-overdue first step.

Timothy Sandefur

Vice President for Legal Affairs, Goldwater Institute

Explore our post-victory articles:

VICTORY! Phoenix Judge Declares Homeless ‘Zone’ Illegal—Orders City to Abate Nuisance

A Maricopa County judge declared Phoenix’s homeless “Zone” an illegal public nuisance this afternoon after property and business owners in the area sued the city for encouraging hundreds of homeless people to reside in tents in a vast swath of downtown.

State Judge Blows a Hole in Leftist Case for Neglecting Homeless Camps, Open-Air Drug Markets

National Review – Ryan Mills – April 28, 2023

The gunshots rang out just before midnight in mid April — pop, pop, pop, pop. Joel Coplin and his wife, Jo-Ann, were sleeping in their home above their downtown Phoenix art gallery when they were awakened by the loud blasts in front of their building. But they did not rush to the window…

VICTORY! Arizona Judge Declares Phoenix’s Homeless ‘Zone’ an Illegal Public Nuisance

Timothy Sandefur – March 28, 2023

A Maricopa County judge this afternoon found that the city of Phoenix is maintaining an illegal “public nuisance” by encouraging a population of over 1,000 homeless people to reside in tents in a vast swath of downtown referred to as…

Court Could Help Clean Up Homelessness Chaos in This City, and Yours

Timothy Sandefur – March 31, 2023

Cities nationwide are struggling under a homelessness epidemic, but the situation is particularly grim in Phoenix, where city leaders set aside a section of downtown as an unofficial open-air shelter known colloquially as “The Zone.” Over…

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