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The latest in Phoenix's efforts to remove biggest homeless encampment after lawsuit


Business owners in downtown Phoenix are in court this week, saying the city isn't moving fast enough to remove its biggest homeless encampment. From member station KJZZ, Kirsten Dorman reports.

KIRSTEN DORMAN, BYLINE: At issue is The Zone, which is what everybody calls the cluster of tents and shelters made of pallets, sun-faded blankets and tarps that's been clustered around the Human Services campus downtown for years. I spoke to a woman, who goes by Chica, who lives there. We're only using her first name because she's worried she could be attacked for talking to a reporter. Chica used to be a nurse. After her husband died, she ended up unhoused and in The Zone.

CHICA: I'm a 50-year-old grandmother of nine. I don't want to be here.

DORMAN: Phoenix is in the middle of what could be a record-breaking heat wave. The pavement where people pitch tents can heat up to 180 degrees. Chica says part of how she gets by is selling sodas. And she's been the victim of violence here, even just a few days before we met.

CHICA: It has got to be a living hell. I want my house, and I want to get the hell off this [expletive] street.

DORMAN: Violence and crime are a reason Downtown Phoenix businesses and property owners sued the city last year. Testifying yesterday, Freddy Brown, who owns a funeral supply business here, said The Zone is a public nuisance, and Phoenix is responsible for abating it.


FREDDY BROWN: Violence is an everyday theme, be it from just fistfights, people yelling, screaming. I've actually provided Phoenix Police Department with video of people brandishing weapons towards other people in and around my business.

DORMAN: In March, a county judge sided with plaintiffs, ordering the city to clear The Zone, and he gave it until this week to show progress. Rachel Milne directs Phoenix's Office of Homeless Solutions. She says the city is dedicated to moving the homeless encampment, and it's part of why her office was created.

RACHEL MILNE: I would say the city is committed to doing this regardless of an injunction.

DORMAN: But people are becoming homeless faster than Phoenix can provide shelters or housing. Still, in May, to comply with the court order, the city started clearing streets and moving anyone willing to go indoors. It's been doing it a block at a time, clearing one block roughly every three weeks.

MILNE: Given the number of people in the area, taking it one block at a time allows us to address the needs of those individuals on that one space.

DORMAN: In court this week, the business owners say the city isn't moving fast enough, and they don't think its overall plan will work, either. That plan is to create a structured outdoor camp about a block away. The city says there will be security there and a place for people to camp legally, and it will offer indoor space to cool off. But yesterday, city officials told the judge they're pushing the opening date for that camp back by at least a month - to October at the earliest. This week's hearings end tomorrow, and the judge is expected to rule quickly on whether Phoenix is making adequate progress in clearing the camp.

Back on the street, where news travels largely by word of mouth, people who live in The Zone feel out of the loop, like 68-year-old George Rice.

GEORGE RICE: I put it like this - we're at our wit's end because our backs are against the wall.

DORMAN: He says people feel frustrated - like they're not included in the decision-making process.

RICE: We weren't privy to what was said and how this come about.

DORMAN: In downtown Phoenix, it's clear that change is coming, but exactly what that means for people living on the streets and the property owners who sued to have them removed is still not clear.

For NPR News, I'm Kirsten Dorman in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 13, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
Our story stated that Phoenix officials told a judge that they're pushing back by at least a month the opening date for a new, structured homeless camp. That is not correct. The city has not changed its projection that the camp will open in September.
Kirsten Dorman