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ACLU Fights Sweeps of Homeless Encampment in Downtown Phoenix

A Maricopa County Superior Court Judge ordered the city to clear the Zone by mid-July

The America Civil Liberties Union is continuing to battle the city of Pheonix over a homeless encampment.

The legal advocacy organization originally sued the city in November to prevent police from enforcing ordinances and cleaning up the downtown encampment – known as the Zone. The ACLU has argued the laws and law enforcement’s actions “criminalize homelessness” and do not sufficiently support the people forced to leave the area.

An estimated 800 people live in the Zone, which is described as a 500-square-foot paved block that does not have shade and smells of urine. 

A group of a dozen people who live or work in the area near the Zone sued Pheonix in August of 2022 to demand action. The plaintiffs argued Phoenix was neither offering housing or services to the homeless population, nor enforcing the “quality of life” ordinances that were enacted to prevent “loitering, drunken conduct and drug use,” per Axios

The Zone was declared a public nuisance in March by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney, who said the encampment was in a state of lawlessness and chaos” that posed a serious health and safety risk to the homeless population as well as the surrounding area’s residents. He ordered the city to clear the area by July 10. In a flyer distributed to inhabitants of the encampment, the city warned that “refusal to permanently relocate may result in citation or arrest.”

Nonprofit and city outreach workers have tried to relocate the encampment inhabitants to subsidized housing, shelters, or treatment centers. 

“We don’t want to see anybody on the streets of Phoenix suffering,” said Scott Hall, deputy director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions, while speaking to The New York Times

The ACLU’s lawsuit alleged the city issued “mass criminal citations” for unlawful camping or sleeping on public property and called the charges unconstitutional.

“Rather than finding real, lasting solutions to address homelessness, (Phoenix and its police department) have chosen to punish people for living outside — many who have already faced immense hardships and have no other options for shelter,” senior staff attorney Ben Rundall said in December, per The Arizona Republic.

Federal District Court Judge G. Murray Snow granted the ACLU’s request for an emergency injunction to prevent the city from attempting to clear the block in accordance with Blaney’s order. 

The ACLU went back to court on May 16 to ask that Phoenix be found in contempt of court for violating the emergency order by conducting sweeps of the Zone on May 10. In a statement, the group argued city officials

seized and destroyed many unsheltered individuals’ personal belongings and property in this area … did not make individualized assessments before coercing unsheltered individuals into limited and possibly unavailable shelter spaces [and] did not allow unsheltered individuals to return to the area that was cleaned, as their own cleanup plan required.

The city of Pheonix is reportedly planning to conduct another sweep of the Zone on May 24.

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