Housing

Phoenix Wants Judge to Toss Out Lawsuit Over Homeless Encampment

The Zone in downtown Phoenix is at the center of a new lawsuit that is trying to force the city to improve conditions in the homeless encampment.
The Zone in downtown Phoenix is at the center of a new lawsuit that is trying to force the city to improve conditions in the homeless encampment. Matt Hennie
The city of Phoenix made its first move in a lawsuit that is trying to force it to address a growing homeless encampment downtown known as the Zone: rejecting claims made in the case and arguing that it should be dismissed.

In August, a group of property owners in the area sued the city over the encampment, which by some estimates houses 1,500 people on any given night. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the city had allowed the Zone to become "unsanitary and unsafe" and was "washing its hands" of the crisis.

In the lawsuit, which is pending in Maricopa County Superior Court, attorneys asked a judge to intervene and declare the area a "public nuisance" under Arizona law and force the city to clear or move the encampment.

In its response filed on September 16, the city asked Superior Court Judge Alison Bachus to dismiss the suit. Attorneys for the city said the lawsuit's arguments are legally flawed and that discretionary enforcement actions, such as enforcing ordinances against public urination or camping, cannot be compelled in this manner by a judge.

"Plaintiffs are aggrieved about the presence of unsheltered individuals near their residences or businesses," the attorneys wrote in their motion. But, they continued, the lawsuit's requests for the city to intervene fell flat.

"The city has discretion in how it enforces its policies and which policies to adopt," the attorneys argued. "The city does not have a constitutional duty to protect plaintiffs' property."

City spokesperson Dan Wilson told Phoenix New Times in a statement that the city's motion was a procedural matter. "It does not take away from the city’s commitment to work on solutions with those involved in this complaint. The city is hopeful the parties can reach a resolution that will be acceptable to stakeholders including the plaintiffs and the community we serve," Wilson said.
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Some estimates put the population of the Zone at about 1,500 people.
Matt Hennie

City's Request for Dismissal 'Not a Surprise'

The Zone sits just south of the Arizona State Capitol and stretches between Ninth and 13th avenues around Jefferson Street. Several major social services organizations — including André House and Central Arizona Shelter Services — are located there. For decades, many homeless people have lived in the neighborhood.

The encampment has grown in the past several years. A 2019 ruling from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that people cannot be ticketed for camping if there are no shelter beds available to them. That prompted Phoenix, and other cities across the western U.S., to end its enforcement of public camping bans.

Since 2019, the number of people camping long-term in the Zone has grown significantly. On these blocks, even in the deadly summer heat, tents line the streets and there is little shade. Activists have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis, and only within the last year did the city provide a source for potable water.

Fifteen people who own residences or businesses in the area — some of whom live in the neighborhood — are plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the Zone. The initial complaint detailed the ongoing issues the neighborhood faces: public urination and defecation, trash in the streets, and property damage. The city, they claimed, used the 2019 court decision that limited camping enforcement to ignore the problem entirely.

In its motion filed last week, the city contended that the lawsuit mistakenly argued that property owners in the area are suffering constitutional violations and asked for remedies that are beyond the scope of the court, including code enforcement and suggesting the expansion of shelters.

Attorneys for the property owners aren't deterred.

"The city's arguments to dismiss the case don't come as a surprise," said Ilan Wurman, an attorney and associate professor of law at Arizona State University who is working on the case. "They lack merit, and we look forward to responding to them in short order."

At a hearing on September 21, Bachus moved the case forward and scheduled an evidentiary hearing on October 27. 
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk