Nadeen Bender's urban camping ticket may have been dismissed, but she's been too busy surviving to notice.
"Honestly, we've just been moving around as much as we can," said the 43-year-old woman, who lives on the street.
Phoenix New Times wrote on July 15 about how Bender was ticketed for living in a midtown alleyway. Phoenix police issued the ticket for "camping on city property" despite a federal court ruling that prohibits punishing people for living in public space while shelters are full, and despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that advise against dispersing unsheltered people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there was technically shelter space available the day that Bender was cited, this is unusual as the number of people seeking shelter at the Human Services Campus in Phoenix usually outstrips the number of beds available.
Following questions from New Times for the July 15 article, police spokesperson Sergeant Mercedes Fortune said that the officer who cited Bender didn't confirm there was shelter space available before writing the ticket, and that police had notified city prosecutors that Bender's charge should have actually been for obstructing the alleyway, not urban camping. They were "correcting" it, she said.
The article generated some public outrage and offers of help. After local KKFR (98.3 FM) DJ Crisco Kidd mentioned Bender's ticket on his show, one listener called in to say she would pay it. Another reader emailed New Times to say that Bender could store her stuff at their house during her court date.
Online court records show that the charge has since been dismissed and no new charges have been filed against Bender.
This was news to Bender, who thought she had missed her court date earlier this month after having an emotional breakdown on the day she was supposed to appear.
"I'm terrified of going to jail. I'm terrified of going to court," she said.
New Times learned about the dismissal from Elizabeth Venable, treasurer of the Fund for Empowerment advocacy group, who had witnessed Bender being ticketed. Venable sent a letter to the court two days before Bender was supposed to appear, objecting to the charges. She received back a notice that the charges had been dismissed.
City of Phoenix spokesperson Nickolas Valenzuela said prosecutors requested the charge be dismissed.
"We have not been prosecuting under that ordinance," he said, citing the federal court's ruling. If police want to bring further charges, prosecutors will review them, he added.
The prosecutor's office does send out notice of a dismissal, but it goes to the last known address of that person, he said.
When told about the dismissal by New Times, Bender said she was "glad," but she was already thinking about what else she had to deal with. Court records show she still has a warrant for a March charge of obstructing a street or public area, and a few weeks ago she and her partner were accosted by police for trespassing after they went through a hole in the fence into a parking area of a medical complex. They were living at the time in the alley behind the complex.
Bender, who is often incapacitated by heat during the day, said they were trying to cool off in the shady parking garage because she was feeling sick. She said police wouldn't allow them to retrieve any of their vital documents before she was taken to the hospital, so she had to rush back and move their possessions before they could be stolen, she said.
Police spokesperson Fortune said that Bender and her partner had already been warned about trespassing at that location and Bender's partner was taken to jail because he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant, but Bender was not booked on any charges. Two people with them who had not been previously warned about trespassing were not detained, and Bender left her property with them, Fortune said.
Bender's partner was released the next day. They've been on the move since, trying to avoid attracting attention, she said. She's been homeless for two years and hasn't been able to take a shower in a month, but doesn't want to risk going into a congregate shelter during a pandemic. Venable said she's had a hard time keeping in touch with her.
This is the exact type of situation CDC guidelines seek to avoid.
"If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are," the guidelines recommend. "...Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread."
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