The city of Phoenix spent $309,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds deploying hundreds of metal posts and thousands of feet of chain, with more installments coming, in an effort to push homeless people into fenced lots this past spring.
The chains are strung between waist-high posts ringing the dirt areas between the sidewalk and the road in the blocks surrounding the Human Services Campus. Area residents call them "the easements." Formerly lined with tents, the easements in the area bordered by 8th and 15th Avenues and Jackson to Jefferson Streets now lay empty after the city employees and police displaced the people living there and erected the chains.
In the first phase, the city installed 1,500 metal posts and 13,600 feet of chain. Despite complaints from people living in tents, service providers, and neighbors, the city is lining more blocks in the area with the shining barriers this week.
The expenditures were discovered by an Arizona State University landscape architecture class looking at creating a plan to increase the greenery and trees in the area. Faculty associate Lora Martens said there were lots of rumors floating around about the chains, so one of her graduate students, Kevin Scholfield, decided to file a public records request.
Martens said she was surprised by the records they received — not by how much it cost to install that volume of structures, but that the city would undertake such an extensive and expensive endeavor without input.
"When you go down there it's shocking," she said. "It's blocks and blocks and blocks of it."
While Maricopa County has maintained that the parking lots it set aside for people to camp in are optional, Phoenix police did initially tell some they had to relocate to the lots. The city now admits that part of the plan with the chains was to move people to the lots.
Two spokespeople for the city manager's office defended the move as a method to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among clusters of unsheltered people.
"It was a way to utilize some of the funding to support people experiencing homelessness now," said Shelly Jamison, the communications director for the city manager's office.
She went on to say that moving people to the lots was a way to ensure that they were all in one place to access services. Also, she said, the areas where people were camping were unsafe since they were next to the road.
Many people did not go to the lots, however.
Ash Uss, advocacy and partnerships coordinator at André House, a homeless services provider adjacent to the campus, spent some time trying to track where people camping on the easements ended up after being displaced but gave up after realizing the task required more resources than she had.
"I just haven't seen them since this happened," she said.
There were around 400 people camped out on the easements before the sweep, and the county lots only had space for around 200 people when they first opened, she said. Some people didn't go because they didn't want to be trapped in a fenced lot, and many didn't want to deal with the extreme heat in the unsheltered lots.
While Uss said the city's move to open up the convention center for heat relief was great, it was a 15-minute shuttle ride away from service providers and many didn't take advantage of it.
Before the chains went up, outreach workers could easily locate people camped out near André House just by stepping outside, but they've now lost track of people they were working with, as many have dropped off the radar or scattered across the city, Uss said. One person she knows has moved from the area near the Human Services Campus to camp in the middle of the Garfield Neighborhood, where there's shade.
"The CDC was clear as possible that we should not be dispersing encampments right now," she said.
Since March, well before the city dispersed the people living on the easements, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said unsanctioned encampments should not be dispersed when there is not adequate, physically-distanced shelter space. The CDC fears the exact situation Uss describes: People spread out through the population, potentially carrying COVID-19 while disconnected from outreach workers who can provide hygiene supplies and guidance.
While the city's vision of having people centralized in the lots to provide them services fits with CDC goals, the city spokespeople had no great answers for the dispersal that occurred as a result. They also weren't sure exactly where the idea for the chains and posts actually originated.
Angela Ojile, head of Madison Pioneers Coalition, a group of neighbors and area business owners, said the posts were as much a surprise to them as anyone else.
"We would never have been ok [with the posts] because of how awful they look," she said. Ojile said she thought the posts had "saved lives" by moving people from the easements, where her group says dangerous activity was taking place, but her group wanted something nicer looking and to be consulted on the process. She said it was a classic example of the city not communicating.
Jamison, the city spokesperson, speculated that the idea may have sprung from one of the many meetings between department heads in which they tried to figure out how to best use the $293 million in CARES Act money the city received. There was a lot of uncertainty about how COVID-19 worked back then, so they were trying many different things.
The posts were "things we enacted to the best of our knowledge," she said.
At the same time, as the first round of posts were installed, the city installed gates on two alleyways in the area and sought to pay for them with CARES Act money, Phoenix New Times previously reported.
The chains have caught some heat from Phoenix Councilmember Carlos Garcia, who asked the city attorney to look into the legality of the project back in June. Councilmember Michael Nowakowski, (who represents District 7, where the Human Services Campus is located), has backed the project, but three of the four candidates running to replace him when he leaves office in April have voiced skepticism about the project.
It's unclear who was informed about the second phase of the project, which discussions about began around a month ago.
Martens, the landscape architecture instructor, said there are better ways to shape the use of the area. Her students were looking at plantings and drainage that would increase the livability of the area while also discouraging long-term camping.
What this doesn't address, she said, is the need for more homeless shelters.
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