The city of Phoenix wants to use $21,500 of federal COVID-19 relief money to reimburse the cost of putting up mid-sized gates to keep homeless people out of two alleys near the downtown area.
Six feet tall and 20 feet across, the gates themselves are already up. Made of thin, black-painted metal bars with spiked tops, they sit across the entrances to the two consecutive blocks of alleys running from South Ninth Avenue to South 11th Avenue between West Jefferson Street and West Madison Street. On one end sits the lots put aside for people living on the streets to camp in. They're secured by two heavy-duty padlocks: one for residents and one for fire department access.
The alleys are part of an area southwest of downtown Phoenix that's been home to a rising number of people experiencing homelessness — a number expected to grow larger as the pandemic continues. Hundreds of people live in a county-sanctioned village of tents spread out over several lots, along the side of the road or in the nearby Human Services Campus shelter.
The city's Public Works and Street Transportation departments paid for the new gates, said public works spokesperson Yvette Roeder. The city's homelessness working group and gated alley program have in turn requested that the city manager reimburse the expense from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money provided to the city by the federal government.
She said the request will likely be approved, but she doesn't know when.
Angela Ojile, president of Madison Pioneers Coalition, a group of residents and business owners around the campus, told Phoenix New Times the situation in the alleys had become unbearable due to trash, human waste, and safety issues.
"You can imagine coming home at night and trying to get in and literally stepping in shit," Ojile put it bluntly.
Being less visible than the street, the alleys were more susceptible to crime and drug use, she and several housed and un-housed area residents said. Members of Ojile's group filled out grant applications and petitioned the city for the gates, which were installed in May.
Prompted by some city council members, city officials are looking into expanding the number of gates citywide and whether they can pay for it with CARES money.
Yet Ash Uss, advocacy and recruiting coordinator for André House of Hospitality, said federal money meant to assist people shouldn't pay for something that only moved the problem around.
"Unreal," she said when told about the plan by New Times. "That's a lot of money that's not helping anyone."
She understands why residents or businesses along the alley had issues that needed to be addressed, she said. But the gates are just part of the larger issue of the city displacing homeless people without addressing the underlying lack of shelter space, Uss said.
The same day the city fenced off the alleys, it installed metal chains and posts in parking strips within several blocks of the Human Services Campus, displacing scores of people living there. (Ojile said her neighborhood group never asked the city to do this.)
Many of the people moved into the lots set aside for them, but many also just dropped off the service provider's radar, Uss said.
"It simply just moves people to a different place or creates further problems," she said.
The gate program did not start with the pandemic, but began as a pilot program in 2018 to address crime and illegal dumping. Normally, residents have to either pay for the gates themselves or apply for a city grant.
Roeder said the city's homelessness working group, comprised of city departments addressing homelessness and its impacts, was concerned by the amount of trash in the area, the cost to haul it away, and neighbors' concerns about bio-hazards.
The working group teamed up with the gated alleys program to install the gates for Ojile's coalition, and in the process city officials also determined that the city may be eligible for CARES Act funds to reimburse the cost.
"Either-or, it needed to be done," Roeder said
The city also added three more dumpsters around the Human Services Campus in February, for a total of four, at a cost of $13,600, she said. Trash pick-up has been increased to five times a week. Since then, the city has collected 83.5 tons of trash from the dumpsters, as well as four tons from streets and sidewalks each week. The city has budgeted $75,000 annually for the street pick up.
"Although securing two alleyways is not the cure-all, the quick installation of those gates was a preventative measure for the possible spread of the virus within the homeless and surrounding communities, and a deterrent for other unsanitary activities," Roeder said.
The new gates are not a perfect deterrent. On Joel Coplin's block, one is already missing a padlock and hung open, while another is kept open to give homeless people access to parking lots made available for their use. But Coplin, whose apartment and art studio back up to an alley, said the amount of human waste has decreased since the gates went in.
"The back of our building was the neighborhood bathroom," he said, adding that people often slept in the alley, too.
In the mornings he would clean up with a shovel and a broom, slinging feces into the empty lot adjacent.
He also saw muggings and people injecting drugs, but said he never felt unsafe — he came to Phoenix from New York City decades ago. He was on good terms with the people living outside, some of whom helped monitor the alley, he said.
New Times spoke to several people walking in the area who said they didn't want to be identified, but agreed the alleys were a site of frequent drug use and served as a public toilet. One man now who lives in the lots described going to the alley to do his business in a Walmart bag, which he then threw away.
Also helping the situation: The city recently opened two sets of free portable toilets and hand-washing stations by the lots. A visit this week by New Times found them clean and well-stocked. Two amiable security guards said the bathrooms were open to the public, but forbade New Times from interviewing people in the open alley, saying it was county property.
Coplin said people he knows will still ask to use his bathroom since the portable toilets are too hot in the middle of the day.
A man working at the Car City car yard adjoining the gated alleys who declined to give his name said he'd had slightly less stuff stolen since the gates went up, but was still dealing with trash being tossed over the fence into his yard from the lot next door, where people camp.
"They need to put these people in mental health," he said
On July 1, the city council allocated separate Neighborhood Block Watch grant funding to install gates in neighborhoods around the Human Services Campus.
This may be just the beginning of a citywide effort potentially funded by COVID-19 money. On June 23, councilmembers Laura Pastor and Betty Guardado expressed interest in adding more gates in their districts and pressed city staff to look at using COVID-19 funds to do so.
City manager Ed Zuercher cautioned that the funding needed to be for something that was closely tied to COVID-19, but said the city would look into the issue further. Funding was likely available from other sources, he said.
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Guardado, who also serves as Phoenix's vice mayor, was undeterred.
"I think there is a way probably to tie COVID, because now we have a lot of people sleeping the alleys," she said. "We're getting a lot more calls from constituents in different parts of the district."
City staff members are currently exploring options on funding more gates, including potentially using COVID-19 money, and will bring the issue back to the council, probably in the fall as they reconsider their comprehensive homelessness strategy, said Roeder.