Gerry Dees stares at the tents clustered along Madison Street and its surrounding roads in downtown Phoenix where dozens, if not hundreds, of homeless people live in close quarters.
Dees has been homeless for 10 months, living on the same street. In recent weeks, he has kept his distance from the more crowded side of the Madison Street corridor, where a slew of homelessness service providers are located. At 79, and with a recent history of stroke and diabetes, Dees does not want to take his chances with the coronavirus.
"You think they’ll put me on a ventilator? I don’t think so. I’d be one of the ones where they say, ‘Let him go. Give him morphine and let him go,’" Dees said on Thursday afternoon, sitting on a lawn chair outside the van where he sleeps at night. "Maybe my time has ended. I don’t know."
As coronavirus cases in Arizona continue to climb, so does the threat to the unsheltered homeless population, who face unique risks during the pandemic.
Living in packed encampments makes it nearly impossible to practice social distancing. On Madison Street, tents hug up against one another, and sharing essentials like food and appliances with the homeless community is part of daily life.
As of Monday, no one has tested positive for COVID-19 at the medical clinic at Circle the City, the nonprofit leading the health care response for the homeless population. But the first known case of coronavirus among the unsheltered could devastate the community.
"All it takes is one person and then it’ll spread to two people and that’ll spread to two people. Like a plague," said April Ramsey, a 49-year-old homeless woman standing near the Human Services Campus on the far west side of the downtown tent village.
Despite the heightened risk in encampments, local governments have not yet taken up a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage people to set up tents with at least 12-by-12-feet of space per individual.
Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus, said one of the challenges of spacing out tents on the sidewalk is that many homeless people are committed to their current location. Another problem would be the new neighbors that would result from extending the reach of the tent village.
"These tents would end up in so many other places that they would be having interactions with police and businesses that don’t want them by their property," Schwabenlender said.
Maricopa County has set aside an empty lot it owns on Madison Street — directly across from the medical examiner's office — where it plans to direct unsheltered people to set up tents, confirmed county spokesperson Fields Moseley. But the message has not been communicated to homeless people living in the area yet.
Internal notes obtained by Phoenix New Times show that the Maricopa County Health Department was still mulling over the possibility of opening the lot on April 6, about a week ago. The notes indicate that a Maricopa County Human Services employee spoke with the city of Phoenix about spacing out encampments. But Phoenix has not taken a similar step of identifying city-owned lots that could work as sanctioned urban campgrounds.
Conversely, Phoenix has increased enforcement of tent restrictions, including around the unofficial homeless village on Madison Street. Up until recently, the city allowed people to camp on the sidewalk near homeless service providers, only requiring them to temporarily move their tents weekly on Wednesdays so workers could clean the area.
The city conducted a cleaning as recently as Wednesday, April 1. On the most recent Wednesday, however, the cleaning crew did not appear.
Instead, Phoenix Police recently ordered several homeless people to break their tents down during daylight hours, according to cellphone footage posted on April 8 to Facebook by Angie Bracco, a homeless woman living near the Human Service Campus. In the video, Phoenix police officers can be seen shaking tents to get the attention of individuals living inside them as Bracco and other homeless people challenge the cops on their enforcement of the tent policy.
Shown the footage, city of Phoenix spokesperson Tamra Ingersoll said the city has enforced tent restrictions "more regularly" to "keep large groups out of enclosed spaces."
Yet Phoenix officers in the video make no mention of coronavirus or social distancing as they explain why the homeless residents must break down their tents. Instead, the officers cite safety concerns, including visibility for cars, and the fact that the tent-dwellers are technically trespassing on city property.
In one exchange, an officer suggests to a homeless woman that she could go to a park when she says that the tents protect people from the sun. "We cannot go there," Bracco responds. "They will arrest us."
(The city of Phoenix has enacted several restrictions on parks due to the coronavirus, closing athletic courts, playgrounds, and restrooms, though use of green spaces and camping overnight in parks are still allowed. On April 9, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted a nonemergency police line for residents to report large gatherings at parks.)
Speaking with a different officer, Bracco says that people with asthma need their tents to shelter from the heat.
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"It's 80 degrees out here," the officer responds. "It's not hot."
"Due to the increase of tents along the public thoroughfares, officers are now asking anyone with a tent to
lower them," said Phoenix Police spokesperson Sergeant Mercedes Fortune. "This is in an effort to keep everyone safe, motorists and pedestrians alike. Lowering the tents allow for more visibility. A second benefit to lowering the tents is the less likelihood of groups congregating inside of the numerous tents."
The city's approach differs from that of Los Angeles, which has a much larger homeless population. In mid-March, the Los Angeles City Council voted to temporarily suspend an ordinance banning daytime use of tents in public spaces.
“The only thing that’s worse than having lots of people living in encampments is throwing them out of the encampments and making them more vulnerable,” said Los Angeles council member Mike Bonin before voting for the change.