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.
People previously living in the Salt River bed were flooded out on Sunday by spring runoff released by SRP. Ray Stern
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.

click to enlarge One of several groups of homeless people displaced by flooding in the Salt River bed. - RAY STERN
One of several groups of homeless people displaced by flooding in the Salt River bed.
Ray Stern
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.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern