The ACLU of Arizona wants a federal judge to hold the city of Phoenix in contempt for allegedly seizing and destroying the property of unsheltered people in the Zone during a sweep on May 10.
The organization filed its request on May 16 as settlement talks stalled in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the city — and just days after city crews cleared a block of the downtown homeless encampment. U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday about the ACLU's request.
"We have witnesses that saw the city seizing and destroying a lot of property, including things like bedding, tents, blankets — things that are clearly survival items," Jared Keenan, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, said of the May 10 cleanup. "That was alarming."
The new development complicates the city's current plans to clear out the Zone, which is the subject of multiple thorny legal battles. The ACLU suit was filed on Nov. 30 in U.S. District Court on behalf of two Phoenix residents who alleged they lost property in previous raids, Frank Urban and Faith Kearns, and Fund for Empowerment, the organization with which they are now affiliated.
The city dismissed the ACLU's allegations. "Their assertions are not accurate," city spokesperson Kristin Couturier wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times. "No individual's property was destroyed without their permission and there were no issues with unattended property."
"This attempt by the plaintiffs to derail and interfere with our efforts to assist both individuals experiencing homelessness and nearby business owners does nothing to help those in need," she continued.
ACLU: City violated court order
A judge's order in a different lawsuit — brought in August 2022 by 15 Zone property owners — forced the city to start clearing out the Zone, despite a lack of available shelter space for those living there.
In April, the city announced plans to clear out the encampment block by block. Hundreds of people currently live in the Zone, which spans from roughly Ninth to 12th avenues south of Washington Street downtown. The four main shelters in the city were at 97% capacity as of April, according to recent data, so it's not clear where the displaced people will go.
On May 10, the city cleared the first block of the Zone, a stretch of Ninth Avenue where 35 people were living. A scrum of press and legal observers watched as city workers helped people put their belongings in bins and took down tents. The sweep started at sunrise, and by late morning, the block was completely clear.
On Dec. 15, Snow issued an order barring the city from destroying property during sweeps. If the city did seize property, the judge required that the city store it for 30 days, and leave a notice at the location where it was seized explaining how the owner could retrieve it.
Snow's December order also blocked the city from enforcing municipal bans on camping or sleeping, so long as there were not enough shelter beds available for people who are homeless.
Yet on May 10, the ACLU argued in its pursuit of a contempt order that the city "destroyed significant amounts of unsheltered individuals' personal property" — and allegedly violated Snow's December order.
"Observers did not see the City mark any items as 'abandoned' or 'unattended' or tag or place caution tape around any items," ACLU attorneys argued. "The City only allowed unsheltered individuals offered shelter to keep two garbage bins worth of personal items and belongings."
The ACLU based its account of the May 10 sweep on testimony from witnesses who spoke with unsheltered people on the block and observed outreach workers as they cleared the area. Photographs from the recent cleanup were submitted with the suit as evidence that property was not tagged and left in place.
The city claims that is because people living on that block had already authorized city workers to store their belongings. "Any items that were removed from the block were authorized to be removed by the individuals who were formerly camping in the area when they engaged with our staff," Couturier said.
City plans May 31 sweep
The results of the May 23 hearing could impact the city's plans to clear out the entire Zone by July 10. That deadline was set by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney in the case brought by property owners.
But the city is forging ahead with its sweeps. "The next enhanced engagement effort is tentatively planned for May 31st," Couturier wrote. That's when city workers will clear out people living on the west side of 12th Avenue between Jefferson and Washington streets.
As the sweeps continue, settlement talks are ongoing between the city and the Fund for Empowerment in the federal lawsuit. The ACLU alleged in its May 16 filing that an agreement had nearly been reached, but that the city refused to sign before the sweep was carried out.
The city pushed back on that account.
"The city was working in good faith to come to terms in settling the case," Couturier said. "The city expressed to the plaintiffs that there were operational issues we were working through and needed time to reach an agreement in which the city could meet the terms."