It's time for Phoenix to clean up the humanitarian disaster area known as 'The Zone'

Kevonyae Briggs removes his belongings from his tent on Madison Street (between 12th and 13th Avenues) on Dec. 16, 2022, before Phoenix started its enhanced cleanup of the area.
Kevonyae Briggs removes his belongings from his tent on Madison Street (between 12th and 13th Avenues) on Dec. 16, 2022, before Phoenix started its enhanced cleanup of the area.

Finally, someone has gone to bat for sanity and for the residents and businesses that surround the homeless camp known as "The Zone." And for the people who live there in conditions not fit for a dog.

And no, it wasn’t the city of Phoenix, which for five years has largely turned a blind eye to a scene that looks to be right out of a third-world country. Or Portland.

On Monday, a judge issued a scathing indictment of city leaders, ordering them to clean up the “public nuisance” that is home to nearly 1,000 homeless people near downtown Phoenix.

Phoenix looked the other way on The Zone

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney noted that police have been told not to enforce the law within The Zone, resulting in chaos, squalor and violence.

The evidence … strongly suggests that the City created and maintains the dire situation that currently exists in The Zone through its failure, and in some cases refusal, to enforce criminal and quality of life laws in The Zone,” Blaney wrote, in a ruling issued in a lawsuit filed by area residents and business and property owners.

“The City’s refusal to meaningfully enforce statutes and ordinances in The Zone has created a classic ‘siren song’ to certain individuals that are enticed at their peril by The Zone’s drugs, sex, and lack of societal rules."

The city has long maintained it cannot break up the state’s largest homeless camp, citing a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision cities cannot ban urban camping unless they have adequate shelter space to house them.

But the judge says that the city assumes that everyone sleeping in a tent is unable to find other shelter. Some people, he wrote, prefer living on the street where there are no rules – at least, none that are enforced.

City and Arizona need to work a lot harder

In response to the judge’s ruling, the city on Monday issued a statement saying it is “committed to addressing the needs of all residents and property owners.”

“We continue work with local and regional partners to address the complex issues surrounding those experiencing homelessness and to connect people in need with safe, indoor spaces and resources to help end their homelessness,” the city said.

Based upon the judge’s findings, I’d say they need to work harder.

And the state of Arizona as well.

Editorial: Phoenix's 'Zone' needs policing and a plan

Yes, homelessness is a growing and complex problem – one that requires different solutions depending upon what landed a person on the streets.

But you don’t throw up your hands and allow what’s going on in the The Zone to continue because you haven’t hit on the perfect solution.

There isn’t one.

The Zone is a den of crime and drug use

The judge paints a dire picture of The Zone, saying Phoenix “intentionally stopped – or at least materially decreased enforcement” of criminal, health and other quality of life ordinances in 2018, after the 9th Circuit's ruling.

As a result, the judge notes:

  • A dramatic increase in violent crime and property crime. “Police officers have responded on multiple occasions to situations involving burned or burning human bodies in The Zone, including that of a burned, deceased newborn baby found lying in the street," he wrote. "Business owners and employees no longer feel safe and must travel in groups.”

  • Open drug use. Business owners come to work to find used needles, tin foil with the burned residue of fentanyl pills on the sidewalks and people passed out on their patios.

  • An area awash in human waste. “Business and property owners do not go outside when it rains because of the puddles full of human urine and feces."

  • Prostitution, frequent public nudity and sexual activity in plain view.

Phoenix kept the tents but nixed the art?

The judge notes that the city, at one point, cleared away the tents lining the public right-of-way adjacent to one business in order to work on a gas line. The business then installed “artistic sculptures” to discourage the homeless from returning.

The city ordered the business tear down the sculptures, citing a Phoenix ordinance that makes it “unlawful for any person to temporarily or permanently place, construct, maintain, or install a minor encroachment in the public right-of-way.”

The tents that contribute to a public health and safety crisis could stay. But the sculptures had to go?

I'd love to hear Mayor Gallego explain the logic there.

Can Phoenix prove its strategy is working?

Representatives from the city's Office of Homeless Solutions – an office the judge said was set up one month before the lawsuit was filed last fall – testified during a November hearing that the city’s strategy is to keep homeless people who commit crimes out of the criminal justice system.

“The city’s strategy is to pursue services for the individual instead of a conviction,” Blaney wrote.

It’s a noble strategy. It is, after all, preferable to address the root of the problem rather than the symptom.

So where’s the evidence that strategy is working?

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The city’s response to the humanitarian nightmare that is The Zone seems to be a collective shrug, falling back on that 9th Circuit ruling and saying, what can we do?

Court has 'little evidence' the city will act

Blaney said the city could create structured campgrounds on vacant city lots, as other cities have, to satisfy its concerns about the Ninth Circuit ruling.

Instead, the city's focus is on planning more shelters for domestic violence victims or other specific groups of unsheltered individuals – shelters that are certainly needed but will do little to alleviate the mess in The Zone.

“With few exceptions, the action items about which City representatives testified centered around the creation of more bureaucracy, additional staff positions, and obtaining additional funding for programs to vaguely address homelessness in general,” the judge wrote.

“The Court received very little evidence – if any – that the City intends to take immediate, meaningful action to protect its constituent business owners, their employees, and residents from the lawlessness and chaos in The Zone.”

Phoenix, meanwhile, lamely assures us it is “committed to addressing the needs of all residents and property owners.”

Well, when, I wonder?

Reach Roberts at Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix must clean up homeless 'Zone,' even if it doesn't want to