Downtown residents, business owners sue Phoenix over growing homeless encampment

Tents line the streets near the Human Services Campus on South 12th Avenue just east of downtown Phoenix, where several hundred people are camped out. (Photo courtesy of Steve Carr/Human Services Campus)

A man stands by tents near Eighth Avenue just east of downtown Phoenix. A lawsuit filed in August demands that the city enforce existing laws. (Photo courtesy of Steve Carr/Human Services Campus)

Bicycle parts fill a shopping cart near an encampment for unsheltered people just east of downtown Phoenix. A lawsuit filed in August asks that the area be declared a public nuisance. (Photo courtesy of Steve Carr/Human Services Campus)

Tents line the streets near Human Services Campus on South 12th Avenue just east of downtown Phoenix, where several hundred people are camped out. (Photo courtesy of Steve Carr/Human Services Campus)

PHOENIX – A group of residents and business owners just east of downtown have filed suit seeking a declaration of public nuisance in hopes the city will enforce laws in an area where several hundred unsheltered people have set up camp.

“There’s no accountability, there’s no standard, there’s no enforcement of law, and people are being subjected to living conditions that are truly not acceptable,” said Karl Freund, the CEO of Kenneth James Realty, who’s involved in the lawsuit and owns a warehouse near the area.

Freund said he wants the city “to enforce the existing laws in the books. We’re not asking for anything other than that.”

Ilan Wurman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said those laws deal with drug use, domestic violence, fires, public urination and defecation, and environmental laws.

The lawsuit filed last month in Maricopa County Superior Court identifies an area bounded by Seventh and 15th avenues, Van Buren and Grant streets, particularly a section known as “the Zone.” Tents line the streets, trash is scattered throughout, and many broken bicycles fill a camp in the area. The suit alleges that Phoenix “has created a policy of concentrating its homeless population in plaintiffs’ neighborhood.”

Freund said his goal is to seek more law enforcement when it comes to mental health services and drug usage.

“We’re just throwing money at the problem,” he said. “I don’t think that is a solution.”

Tents, clutter and bikes near an encampment for unsheltered people just east of downtown Phoenix. A lawsuit filed in August asks that the area be declared a public nuisance zone. (Photo courtesy of Steve Carr/Human Services Campus)

Wurman said his clients are not seeking compensation or to overturn a 9th Circuit Court decision that has been applied to Arizona. The 2018 decision involved an Idaho case in which a federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping in public, especially if no shelter beds are available.

“The city of Phoenix has used this relatively narrow ruling to completely abdicate its responsibility over the homelessness crisis,” Wurman said.

“The only law that can’t be enforced right now because of the 9th Circuit decision is you can’t send them to jail for sleeping at night if there are insufficient shelter beds.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness has grown dramatically within the past few years. More than 9,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County as of January, according to the annual Point-In-Time homeless count. Overall, homelessness rose 22% from 2020 (the count was suspended in 2021 because of the pandemic). The unsheltered count increased 34%, and the sheltered count went up 9%.

Although the lawsuit names the city, other organizations not involved in the lawsuit are working to combat homelessness in the area. Human Services Campus, a Phoenix nonprofit of 16 partner organizations committed to ending homelessness, last month restarted its Project Connect events, which bring housing, medical and employment services to hundreds of people in need.

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Anthony Gray, 44, said the Zone is “not how you’re supposed to live.” He attended Project Connect for the first time, on Aug. 30.

“It’s good for the community … because it helps people – not push them away,” he said.

The plaintiffs support such efforts as Project Connect, which they say are necessary to helping unsheltered people. But they want the city to do more.

Phoenix officials declined to comment on the pending litigation but pointed to several efforts it has underway related to homelessness and affordable housing.

In the past fiscal year, the city dedicated nearly $50 million to solutions that include shelters, mental health services and increased affordable housing, city spokesperson Kristin Couturier said. Phoenix spent more than $23 million on services related to homelessness solutions in fiscal year 2020-21, doubling its funding. The city also developed a Strategies to Address Homelessness report and approved an additional $70.5 million dollars in federal pandemic relief funds for affordable housing and homelessness programs.

Wurman said the plaintiffs expect to hear a response from the city by Friday.

Caroleina Hassett CARE-UH-LEE-NUH HASS-IT (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Caroleina Hassett expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Hassett has interned as a producer and reporter at ABC15, The Arizona Republic, 12News, PBS NewsHour West and AZTV7.

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