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Phoenix must prove in court that it has cleared 'The Zone' homeless encampment

The city of Phoenix will go to court Monday to prove it has met a deadline to clear a large homeless encampment, an action that has drawn pushback from civil rights advocates.

As part of a civil lawsuit, city officials will have a three-day trial to show they have complied with a judge’s order and cleaned up the area known as “The Zone.”

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney sided with business owners and residents in June and declared the tent city in south Phoenix a public nuisance.

He also found that while the city was following a law against criminalizing public camping, it arbitrarily enforced others despite health and safety risks. The plaintiffs described having to witness drug activity, lewd acts and other criminal activity in front of their door or steps away from their property.

Rachel Milne is the director of the City of Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions.

“I think we’ve made some really good progress. We do have a long way to go,” Milne said Friday.

The city has been disbanding “The Zone” one block at a time in “enhanced cleanups.” Which means taking down tents, dismantling self-made structures and trying to transition people to indoor shelters.

So far the city as said it has been able to place everyone who wants to go to a shelter in one. Phoenix isn’t moving everybody out of “The Zone” all at once — it’s going block by block. The city has done three blocks since the beginning of May and has moved about 120 people.

Officials say they plan to clear two more blocks this month, which the city is also planning to open what it calls an outdoor structured camp by Sept. 1. People will be allowed to camp legally and safely on an empty lot downtown owned by the state. The city will provide security.

Whether that’s enough will be for Judge Blaney to decide this week.

Dangerously high temperatures are a major concern for Phoenix’s homeless population. Much of the Southwest is dealing with that heat wave this week. The National Weather Service is predicting an extended heat wave that could set new records, and it’s forecasting highs of at least 110 for the next week. And in Phoenix, it doesn’t cool off at night.

Last year, there was a record set for deaths from heat-related causes in Maricopa County, and 420 people died — many of them unsheltered. The city says the new legal camp they’re setting up will have a steel shade structure. The camp will have turf and use an existing warehouse on site as air-conditioned space — but that won’t be ready until the end of the summer.

Like several other major cities, Phoenix has had to balance the concerns of employers and homeowners with respecting the rights of homeless people.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist.

This civil suit is one of two facing Phoenix.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona argued in a federal lawsuit that the city is violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people by slowly clearing the area.

U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow, however, declined the ACLU’s request in May to declare Phoenix in contempt of a ruling he issued in December. Snow said he would not bar the city from further cleanups at the encampment site pending another hearing.

In the December ruling, Snow ordered the city to refrain from enforcing camping and sleeping bans against people who cannot obtain shelter, nor can their property be seized.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.