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Phoenix bans homeless encampments near schools, day cares. How city plans to enforce the rule

The Phoenix City Council voted 8-0 on Wednesday to ban homeless encampments near schools, day care centers, shelters and city parks. It’s an expansion of its urban camping ban that could have a big impact on people experiencing homelessness. 

City officials say their goal here is not to criminalize homelessness, but to funnel people to shelter. But, concerns remain that this will just further cycle homeless individuals in and out of the criminal justice system. 

Taylor Seely has been covering it for the Arizona Republic and talks to The Show.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Thanks for coming back on The Show, Taylor.

TAYLOR SEELY: Thanks for having me.

GILGER: All right. So first give us the details of this ban. What does this urban camping ban prohibit exactly?

SEELY: Well, as you had mentioned, the city already had an existing urban camping ban but Wednesday's vote expanded its ban to include sleeping, cooking and camping near schools, day care centers, shelters and city parks and specifically within 500 feet of any of those locations.

GILGER: OK. So the council actually softened the penalties here for urban camping as well.

SEELY: Correct. It used to be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor. They shifted that down to a Class 3, and they restricted the fine to a maximum of $100 for the first offense. But other penalties for that Class 3 misdemeanor include jail time, up to 30 days and up to a year of unsupervised probation, and then after the first offense, technically for a Class 3 misdemeanor, the fine can go up to $500.

GILGER: So council members [Wednesday] really stressed that this was not about criminalizing people experiencing homelessness as I said, but there were plenty of people it sounds like who, who said this is exactly what will happen here. What, what did they have to say?

SEELY: Correct. I mean, there were, there were a number of public commenters who came, many of whom said they had been formerly homeless. And I think they just really wanted to stress to the City Council their personal experience how difficult it was for them to try to be resting in a park to then be told, hey, you can't be here. So they moved somewhere else, try to rest told again, hey, you can't be here and they basically just asked, when is this cycle going to end? It's not working. This isn't realistic for us and you know, shelter works. 

But they stressed also that it needs to be appropriate shelter. If someone has a mental health issue, they might need a shelter that has mental health programs specifically or if they have a dog with them you know, and that dog is really like a lifeline for them. They want a shelter that has the ability to house their dog as well. 

GILGER: Is there any public space left with this expansion of the camping ban, Taylor, where someone experiencing homelessness can sleep?

SEELY: You know, that's a great question. And it's one I've been trying to get answered from the city. I don't, I don't know if they know or if they are just not answering me yet. You know, I was told by the city's communication director this morning that answering that question is, is a difficult one that it is a little like, telling you what all, you know, what all, he said, answering that question is like, say, telling me to answer, tell me every color of land that isn't green. So I don't know what that means, but they're not giving me a straight answer on that question.

GILGER: Let's talk about enforcement here. How will city police enforce this? When can they enforce it? There are court orders about whether or not the city or when the city is allowed to sort of punish people for this?

SEELY: Right. Like whether or not they have available shelter beds, right? Their court order right now is that they need to have appropriate shelter space or alternative public space, you know, which again goes to that question you asked of what other public space is there because we know certainly the city has been trying for a very long time to build more shelter because the number of homeless individuals exceeds the shelter available. So, I'm sorry, could you repeat?

GILGER: Well, so tell us more about this court order and what law enforcement says about how and when they can enforce this.

SEELY: Yeah, so law enforcement says that they are really going to rely still on the city services. So the city has its office of Homeless Solutions. They're going to try to work with their cares program to first go out to individuals experiencing homelessness and say, hey, we wanna help you, we wanna give you a hand up. You know, these are the programs we have available. Are you willing to partake in these? If they are, you know, that's gonna be the situation. If they are not, then that's where the police says they will use this ordinance as a last resort enforcement mechanism. So at that point, they will say, OK, you're not complying, we're gonna enforce this, we're gonna cite you and at that point, it would go to a judge. 

Now, one thing that's really important that the city council stresses is that they say we launched a community court, it launched in January of this year. And that court is an alternative program for people who are experiencing homelessness who are committing minor crimes that the city doesn't really think is worthy of criminalization. And, and they, and this is why they say this ordinance is actually meant to funnel people to help because we're going to use this as a touch point, we're gonna get law enforcement involved, but then we're going to actually try to get them into this community court where rather than a traditional court sentencing, they're going to be given another opportunity to enter into services and hopefully end their chronic homelessness.

GILGER: Yeah. OK. So they're sort of going to use this to try to persuade people to accept services. It doesn't go into effect for three months, right? Like, and this is important because there is an upcoming US Supreme Court decision that also addresses this idea.

SEELY: Yes, the Supreme Court heard the case City of Grants Pass v/ Johnson and that case basically asks, is criminalizing homelessness when there is not, you know, shelter or space available, is that unconstitutional? Does that constitute cruel and unusual punishment? And we're expected to hear the court's decision, you know, later this summer. So partially, the reason for the delay in this ordinance is to see what comes of that. 

And the other reason is they, the city officials say to educate the public about this ordinance about how it's gonna go through. You know, the ordinance isn't actually enforceable unless they have signage that indicates you cannot sleep camp or cook here. And so if schools want, want the police to be able to enforce this ordinance, they're gonna need to work with the city to get those signs up and all of that, the kind of mechanics of that have to be worked out still.

GILGER: OK. All right. We'll leave it there for now. Taylor Seeley covering this for the Arizona Republic. Taylor, thanks for coming back on. Appreciate it.

SEELY: Thanks.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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.