| Housing |

Homeless People Flooded Out of Riverbed Camps in Metro Phoenix

People previously living in the Salt River bed were flooded out on Sunday by spring runoff released by SRP.EXPAND
People previously living in the Salt River bed were flooded out on Sunday by spring runoff released by SRP.
Ray Stern
Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Phoenix and help keep the future of New Times free.

Flooding from spring runoff released by Salt River Project displaced dozens of homeless people on Sunday who make the riverbed their home.

The riverbed, which cuts through the middle of most of the metro Phoenix area, has been a convenient, though potentially dangerous place for homeless people to live for years. In Tempe, camps west of Tempe Town Lake are often tolerated by authorities — at times, anyway — despite a general no-trespassing rule in the riverbed. But on Sunday, large amounts of water spilled over the Town Lake and turned the usually dry riverbed, full of palm trees and weeds, into the river it once was. Homeless men and women gathered on both the north and south banks with bicycles and supplies as ruined tents fluttered in the water.

SRP alerted the public on Friday that it would release water from the Granite Reef Dam, which holds back the utility's two Verde River reservoirs. Winter rain and snow have put the combined Salt and Verde reservoir system at 94 percent of capacity, with more runoff expected to come. The system hasn't been at capacity for a decade. But runoff during rainy years causes periodic flooding that has disrupted homeless campers before, including as recently as 2017.

Tempe police and the city's HOPE outreach team for the homeless warned people in the riverbed on Thursday and Friday, and asked them to spread the word, said Nikki Ripley, a Tempe spokesperson. In-person warnings by the city are typical when runoff is released, she added.

"Normally, HOPE, PD and city Parks staff regularly engage with people in the area and encourage them to relocate because it can be unsafe," Ripley said. "The downstream river bottom is a no trespassing area and signage is in place from Maricopa County Flood Control."

Rules aside, Josh Pearson said he's made a home in the riverbed for five years, and finds it a good alternative to living on streets or in shelters. Pearson, wearing a Gucci knit hat and Cleveland Indians tank top, was among the people sorting through items on the riverbank on Sunday, and said he didn't get any warnings the water was coming. But he took the flood in stride.

"We'll wait for the waters to recede, then start over," he said. "There's a lot less stress out here. You can do things at your own pace."

A woman near Pearson said their group had everything it needed, though they were always open to donations of bottled water. Asked how they were dealing with the coronavirus crisis, Pearson replied cheerfully, "We're hardened for that. I haven't had toilet paper for five years."

Despite that bravado, experts believe that people who are homeless may be more vulnerable to catching COVID-19.

Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.