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Questions remain now that Phoenix has officially cleared out 'The Zone'

It’s been five months since officials with the city of Phoenix finished clearing out the state’s largest homeless encampment known as “The Zone.” The story — which had for months been big news in Phoenix — has faded from the headlines. What's happened to the hundreds of people who lived there as new encampments continue to crop up?

The Show visited one near Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport recently, where a long row of tents was erected along the train tracks and under the State Route 143 underpass.

Ismachiah Perry told us he’d been living there about a month, but he’s been on the street on and off for years, since his kids were adopted.

Full interview

ISMACHIAH PERRY: There's a lot of people here that need help.

LAUREN GILGER: Do people talk about the zone and having to leave?

PERRY: I think some people were disappointed because, you know, you know, some people actually had a place to call home. You know, the crisis that's going on in America right now, they really need some attention paid to, you know.

GILGER: The encampment was quiet on the Friday morning. We visited a few weeks ago, Perry told us he feels safe there at times but not always.

PERRY: Day to day. You know, hit or miss some people wake up and they, you know, believe in themselves. But, you know, there's no mirrors here and the mirrors that are here are cracked and shattered. So it's just bits and pieces of what you used to be or who you could be.

GILGER: These encampments are not an uncommon sight around the Valley since the Zone was cleared out. And as we have seen a massive spike in homelessness here. Rates have gone up 50% in just the last five years.

PERRY: Phoenix, you know, from my knowledge, it used to be like that, you know, when I first came here, like in '95 it was fairly up and coming, you know, good rent prices, but now it just, you know, something's taking the hold of Phoenix, you know, and I know I'll, I'll go ahead and admit that, you know, it's, it's a drug life and lack of education, you know, and like, it's a lack of love, you know, I think overall from family ties to just individuality, loving yourself, you know.

GILGER: At its peak, there were more than 100,000 people living in the Zone, and it often made headlines for being dangerous from drug use to human feces to murders. So months after it's been cleared, what's happened to all of the people who used to live there turns out the city of Phoenix has a pretty good accounting of them, but it's not all success stories.

So let's turn now to the person who was in charge of the city's efforts to relocate and house the hundreds of people who once called the Zone home. Rachel Milne is the director of the city of Phoenix's Office of Homeless Solutions. I spoke with her more about those efforts where they succeeded and where they are still trying.

RACHEL MILNE: So we absolutely are still impressed with, with the numbers, not only the numbers of people who have ended their homelessness now, who are still in shelter as well as we're also doing our best to make sure that we're proactively maintaining that area around the campus and keeping it clear. And making sure people know that the area is close to campus and helping them navigate to other situations if they need it.

GILGER: OK, so you were able to get about 590 people to accept services as you cleaned out the Zone. How many now are, are still housed?

MILNE: So, yes, 590 individuals accepted an indoor placement when we were closing every block around the campus. And so that was an 82% success rate of all the folks we worked with on those days when we closed blocks to camping, 82% of them went to an indoor location. So I'm happy to say 12%, or roughly 70 people, are actually housed with their own lease in permanent housing. So not in shelter, but actually permanently housed.

And so to go from five months ago, living on the streets around the Human Services campus or what was the Human Services campus then, now the Keys campus, that's, that's pretty phenomenal. That number we will continue to see rise because roughly 50% of the people that we worked with and placed into an indoor shelter environment are still in shelter. And so those folks are working on their permanent housing. So as we see the number of people who are still in shelter decrease, we definitely anticipate seeing the number of people permanently housed increase.

GILGER: Tell us a little bit about the process itself. Like as you said, this is, you know, just a couple of months. That's quite an accomplishment to go from, you know, living on the street to being in a permanent, you know, housing situation with a lease, everything. What are the steps involved in that for people in your office? For people at keys for the people involved in trying to get people into housing?

MILNE: Yes. So it can be a complicated process for people. There's lots of different roads to navigate on the way to going from an unsheltered situation into a permanently housed situation. But one of the things that was absolutely key for us was having diverse shelter options for people when we were out closing those blocks to camping, knowing that we didn't just have one shelter to offer folks, but every individual we tried to find a different variety of, of alternatives, them and things that would meet their individual needs, places that would meet their individual needs. So having shelter options that were specific for for females, for example, or other different types of shelter, non congregate options, congregate options. That was absolutely key.

And then once an individual accepted that alternative location and moved to that shelter option, they then work very closely with the nonprofit who, who owns and operates that location. So they're working on their housing plan, maybe getting all of their identification and documents ready. They're possibly looking for employment opportunities. They're all on their individual plan to, to get to that final stage of permanent housing. 

GILGER: OK. So that covers a good chunk of the people who you were able to assist in this process. Let's talk about the rest of the folks. There are a significant percentage of people here on this chart that are, you know, unknown. There's another about 20%, 19% who you know, are now unsheltered again. Tell us a little bit about what happens in those situations, understanding that each case is different.

MILNE: Yes. So let's talk a little bit about unsheltered first. So we know that 19% of people have left a sheltered situation and have now gone into an unsheltered situation. So they may be, you know, interacting with street outreach teams in the community or they could possibly be at our safe outdoor space. We don't consider our safe outdoor space a shelter. So, some of those 19% are actually at our, our safe structured camping ground, which we call our safe outdoor space.

GILGER: Which opened after the zone closed.

MILNE: Yeah. Correct. Yes. So those are folks that, that we're still working with. Again, we know them to be in an unsheltered situation. We know that they are, are touching the system somehow because they're, you know, we know that they've exited the shelter and they're, they're either working with the street outreach team or again in our safe outdoor space. So we're, we're continuing to work with them to help them either re-enter the shelter system or whatever is most appropriate to them.

The 16% that you mentioned that are currently unknown. We do know that they have left shelter, but what we don't know is where they are now. They could have reunited with family or friends, but they also could be in an unsheltered situation and just not interacting with our homeless service system in the community.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. We went out and visited a producer and I one encampment that's popped up recently kind of near the airport near the train tracks. There seem to be new places that people are, are finding to live who don't have housing, right. I wonder like are, is it frustrating to you? Like, does it feel like we will continue to see new encampments pop up in different places around the valley because the Zone is closed or even though the Zone is closed.

MILNE: So I won't say necessarily that it's frustrating. We've got the right team in place to go out and address those encampments when they do pop up. My team spent a lot of time just yesterday at the encampment that you're talking about and we got people to accept indoor placement. So that's what I think gives me a lot of hope is those folks may have interacted with street outreach multiple times in the past. But yesterday was the day that some of them took an indoor location, an indoor shelter bed. And so that's what really gives me hope.

Yes, we still have an unsheltered community here in Phoenix, but we've got teams that are their whole goal and their whole job is to go out and work with them, build rapport, get to know them and find what might be the ideal placement for them today. 

GILGER: Is it a concern that now that the Zone is closed, the Zone, you know, popped up where it did because it was right around what was called the Human Services Campus, lots of resources, food shelter, things like that there. Now it's called Keys to Change. I mean, is it a concern that people who are still unsheltered are now further from those resources?

MILNE: Well, so yes, the, the Key campus does continue to see, I believe around 1000 people a day. It is an open campus. People can walk up and, and receive services there. But what the city of Phoenix is doing as well as many partners in this, in this space at the county and that the state is we're committed to opening resources all over the region so that people don't have to come downtown to get those services that we have services in all areas. Because really, there's not a place within the city of Phoenix or the region that is not affected by this issue.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. And I wanted to point that out like if we're talking about the people who have been relocated from the Zone, I mean, this is only a small percentage of the people experiencing homelessness throughout the Valley. Talk a little bit more about those broader efforts by the city and what you know, the city of Phoenix or other organizations need in terms of funding to do what you need to do here.

MILNE: Yeah. So the city has had a true focus on creating additional shelter capacity and making sure that we're creating that capacity outside of just the concentrated area in downtown Phoenix. So in 2022, we created almost 600 new shelter beds last year. Really and in our efforts around the campus, we created almost 500 new shelter beds, temporary beds. But right now we have 790 new beds in various stages of construction, none of them down around the campus but spread out into the communities that need them. And so that's, that has been a large part of our plan because of some of the, the funding resources we've had since the pandemic. A lot of those 790 new beds are funded with pandemic related funding.

GILGER: Is that funding going to run out soon? 

MILNE: So, yes, we are, we're, we're phasing out the pandemic related funding. But what's nice about the pandemic related funding is it's funding all of the very, very expensive capital costs. So we're, you know, once we've got these things built, it costs a lot of money need to get them built. But then it's just the operation moving forward and, and maintaining these services. 

GILGER: All right, we'll leave it there for now. Rachel Milne, director of the city of Phoenix's Office of Homeless Solutions, Joining us. Rachel, thank you very much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

MILNE: All right. Thank you, Lauren.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.