Phoenix to buy outdoor campground for homeless

The Zone, Phoenix City Council, outdoor campground, ACLU, lawsuit

Ron Shaw tries to keep cool in the shade at the Justa Center, a resource center catering to the older homeless population on July 19, 2022, in Phoenix. The Phoenix City Council on June 28, 2023 approved a proposal by the Housing Department to buy and develop a structured outdoor campground to temporarily house people currently living in the homeless camp known as “the Zone.” (Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

Phoenix to buy outdoor campground for homeless

The Phoenix City Council approved a proposal by the Housing Department to purchase and develop a structured outdoor campground to temporarily house people currently living in the homeless camp known as “the Zone.”

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge mandated the city take tangible steps to clear out the area by July 10, but the city still lacks an adequate number of shelter beds to accommodate the homeless population in Phoenix.

Rachel Milne, director of the Office of Homeless Solutions, told the council the goal of the temporary outdoor camping space is to create an interim space to comply with the court order while working to relocate unsheltered people first into indoor shelters, then to transitional housing.

She noted in the three “enhanced clean ups” of the Zone so far roughly 20% of people living in the Zone have declined to relocate to an indoor shelter or other service.

“If we do have individuals not ready to go to an indoor location, then we have safer locations we can offer them instead of being on someone’s doorstep,” Milne said.

While people remain living in the Zone, attorneys in the federal and state cases argue whether the refusal to go to a shelter implicates “voluntary homelessness.”

The federal and state cases intersected recently as the plaintiffs in the Superior Court case intervened in the federal case filed by the Fund for Empowerment, alleging violations of unsheltered people’s constitutional rights in clean-ups, and moved to dismiss the claim, fearing potential interference with the state court’s order.

In the motion to dismiss the federal case, Stephen Tully, attorney for property owners around the Zone in Brown v. City of Phoenix, recast the key holding from the 9th Circuit case Martin v. City of Boise. The Martin v. City of Boise case holds homeless people cannot be cited for “involuntarily” sitting, lying or sleeping outside.

Tully characterized involuntary homelessness as a person having “any permanent disabilities,” being “mentally or physically incapacitated,” or “otherwise incapable of making choices.”

He argued the case should be dismissed as the formerly unsheltered plaintiffs had the capacity to seek employment or find other places to stay, yet “resided illegally on public property for many years.”

Jared Keenan, an attorney for the ACLU representing the Fund for Empowerment, argued the “involuntary” provision in Martin v. City of Boise is determined by the ratio of shelter beds to unhoused people, and the provision applies when there are not enough shelter beds to address the need.

“It’s very different than saying that individual folks who are experiencing homelessness need to somehow prove that they are involuntarily homeless before their constitutional rights are protected,” Keenan said

Milne and shelter operators said the reasons some may refuse services are vast and varied, and they noted the continued lack of shelter space in the city.

David Leibowitz, a spokesperson for Community Bridges, said the main challenge has been the increased volume of people being directed into shelter spaces, given the limited space available.

He emphasized the decision to opt out of a shelter remains unique to each person, though he noted many have grown roots and found community in the Zone.

“For many residents, the Human Services Campus has become their community. So, accepting services can mean leaving behind friends and people they’ve come to know and care about. Leaving behind a community you know for the unknown can be especially hard,” Leibowitz said.

Jessica Berg, chief program officer with St. Vincent De Paul, a service partner with the city of Phoenix, said moving people into shelters “is really about the right intervention by the right person at the right time.”

She noted the complex circumstances for each person but added many have trouble existing within the conditions of shelters themselves.

“It’d be hard enough for someone with perfect mental health to sleep in a room with 100 people. But if you have other mental health challenges, you can imagine how hard it would be,” Berg said. “I don’t think it’s that folks are choosing to be homeless. It’s that they can’t figure out a better option.”

She also mentioned the lengthy and oftentimes strict intake process at shelters.

“For the sake of the serenity of the whole place, there have to be rules. Some people don’t want to deal with those rules,” Berg said.

Milne described the proposed structured campground as “an inviting place for people, not as strict as a shelter,” though she said there would be an enforced code of conduct.

The property, on 15th Avenue and Jackson Street, includes a 12,000 square-foot warehouse with a fenced-in parking lot.

The prospect of an outdoor shelter faced some opposition, given the often-fatal summer temperatures. But Milne noted they had decided on the location because the indoor warehouse space allowed for cooling during the day.

She also said the property is four blocks away from services and they planned to offer onsite security, case management, food, restrooms and showers.

Gina Monte, city manager, clarified the structured campground would be temporary, with a three-year limit. Milne said they planned to move people there in phases.

The City Council passed the proposal 8-1, with some reservations and requirements for community outreach as the city moves forward, such as the constraints on communicating with plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the Brown plaintiffs have long pushed for an outdoor structured campground and went as far as to lay out potential properties the city could purchase.

But whether the new campground complies with the court order remains up to the judge. The city and the property owners are due in state court on July 10.