As the Phoenix City Council grappled with the role police should play in interacting with homeless people late last month, the issue was playing out on the street for Nadeen Bender.
On June 24, the city insisted that a planned tool to track shelter capacity would not be used to ticket those who refused services. Yet, on June 23, Phoenix police issued Bender a ticket for "camping on city property," the city's urban camping ordinance, court records show.
When Phoenix New Times spoke to Bender, the 43-year-old was back in the same alleyway behind a medical complex parking garage in Midtown where she had been ticketed. Some shopping carts filled with knick-knacks screened her and her partner in as she lay under a bush trying to recover from heat exhaustion, but were tucked in far enough to allow a car free passage.
Bender told New Times the ticket and impending August 3 court date adds a lot of stress. She estimated it already takes around 10 hours a day just to get around, get food, and get everything else she needs to survive while keeping all her stuff safe. What she calls the "survival Olympics."
"It doesn't leave a lot of time for extra," she said.
Dealing with the ticket adds a whole new complication. She has to take the time out of her day to go to court, figure out how she's going to get there and who's going to watch her stuff.
Marcela Taracenar, American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona spokesperson, called the ticket "an unfortunate and frustrating situation."
In January, the nonprofit signed on to a letter to the mayor and city council calling on them to "decriminalize" homelessness. They argued Phoenix's policies of citing people for camping, sitting, or laying on sidewalks, as well as seizing homeless people's unattended property are unconstitutional.
"Criminalizing homelessness was inhumane before the pandemic, but to continue to do so during a drastic surge in COVID-19 cases here in Arizona is even worse," Taracena wrote in an email. "In the midst of this public health crisis, our government should not waste time and money on punitive approaches that only worsen the problem and puts people’s health at risk."
She said they're monitoring the situation but will explore advocacy and legal options if it worsens. She encouraged people to file a complaint with the ACLU if they believe their rights are being violated.
Urban camping infractions have been controversial ever since the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a judge's ruling that ticketing people for sleeping outside when there isn't shelter space available constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. As the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the case, Martin v. Boise, it's the law of the land in the nine westernmost states, including Arizona.
Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), which runs the emergency shelter at the Human Services Campus, is only currently able to house 390 adults with COVID-19 precautions in place. A January count found 2,380 unsheltered people in Phoenix alone.
Tempe and other jurisdictions suspended their urban camping ordinances in response, but Phoenix held out before telling Phoenix New Times in February that they would no longer arrest people for violating the ordinance or prosecute violations.
Elizabeth Venable, treasurer of the Fund for Empowerment advocacy group, told New Times it had been a while since she'd seen someone ticketed for camping.
Venable had just gone to the Staples a few blocks away to print out information for Bender about her rights under Martin v. Boise, and a similar case when she came back to find Bender being ticketed.
"It's really blatant," she said of the ticket. "I was kind of surprised."
Following questions from New Times, Phoenix police spokesperson Sergeant Mercedes Fortune said city prosecutors had been notified that the charge should actually be for obstructing the alleyway and they were "correcting" it.
While CASS Chief Development Officer Dayna Gabler told New Times they were not at capacity that night, Fortune said the officer failed to check if there were resources available before citing Bender. She said the issue has been addressed with the officer.
"The Phoenix Police Department's approach to someone who is experiencing homelessness is to lead with service," she wrote in an email.
Fortune also said that police found illegal drugs and paraphernalia during the encounter, but that Bender was not booked because she needed medical attention.
Bender said the paraphernalia was in a backpack she was watching for a friend. She said she and her partner also discovered a gun in the bag shortly before the police contact, which they disclosed to the officers searching their stuff and who took it with them.
Venable said that it's not unusual for Bender to watch other people's possessions for them, calling her "like a mom" for many. While Bender was speaking with New Times, a man came by and Bender passed along that his niece had come by looking for him two nights ago. She often also acts as a defacto, no-cost Goodwill of sorts, distributing clothes and other essentials she finds in dumpsters or people give her, Bender said.
Court records do not currently show any new charges against Bender besides the camping violation. But she has a warrant out for failing to appear in March on a charge of obstructing a street or public space — a charge cited as problematic for homeless people in the letter the ACLU signed.
After Bender was released from the hospital for heat exhaustion, she came back to the camp and began packing her stuff. She moved a few blocks over for a little while, before returning to the spot in recent days because it has an accessible dumpster for trash.
Going into a shelter with COVID-19 on the loose would scare her, she said. What she needs instead, she said, is support services on the outside to help her with paperwork or going to appointments.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines currently recommend allowing people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are if there aren't individual housing options available.
"Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers," the recommendation says. "This increases the potential for infectious disease spread."
In the meantime, Bender wants to get a laminated sticker with the rules about urban camping to put up, and plans to fight her new ticket. Although Venable has said she will pay any fine, Bender said the city should be held to the same, if not higher, standard as anyone else.
"You have to be the law-abiding citizen you expect us to be," she said.
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