PHOENIX — On the first day of November, 12News was interviewing Bill Morlan about a fire near his shop in downtown Phoenix. But a few minutes into the interview, he had to stop and call 911.
A man waving a metal rod walked into his parking lot, talking to himself. Two of Morlan’s employees asked him to leave and it didn’t seem like the man could hear them. Morlan knew right away that the man needed help.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
Morlan owns Electric Supply Inc. at 9th Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Phoenix, in the heart of “The Zone,” which is what many have unofficially dubbed the homeless encampment that snakes along Jefferson, Madison and Jackson streets from roughly 9th to 15th avenues.
Morlan told the 12News I-Team that he sees fire trucks, ambulances and police cars in his neighborhood every day. The city’s own data suggests both the police and fire department average multiple calls a day. Just over the weekend, 12News reported on a fetus killed by fire in the encampment.
“This is not a place for people to be,” said Morlan. “I mean, it's just not right for them. It's not right for the neighborhood. It's not good for them. It's not good for the community around them.”
Less than five minutes after Morlan called 911, both the police and fire departments pulled up to the front of his shop. The man eventually dropped the rod. Police secured him in handcuffs and walked him over to a squad car. We were told that the man would be taken for a mental health check.
“I've had an employee attacked and headbutted,” Morlan said. “I've had another employee have a knife pulled on him.”
The encampment’s population has tripled in the past year, which at its peak in 2022 tallied more than a thousand people sleeping on the streets outside. The number fluctuates regularly, according to the count conducted by the Human Services Campus every Tuesday. In the first week of November, there were more than 900 people on the street. In the second week of November, the number dropped to fewer than 800.
Despite fluctuating numbers, calls for help in “The Zone” to both the police and fire departments in 2022 are on pace to eclipse the years before it, according to a 12News I-Team analysis.
From 2019 through June of this year, police responded to more than 4,000 calls for help.
Just five types of calls account for more than half the police response: trespassing; welfare checks; fights; assaults; and mental health transports.
As of early November, there were more than 1,200 calls for service to the fire department, which has already surpassed each of the three years before it. The data shows spikes in nearly all kinds of calls including breathing problems, assaults, and heat-related illnesses.
The I-Team learned that starting in 2022, police were also required to respond to all calls for the fire department, which police say contributed to a rise in police response. Makeshift fires are a common sight in the encampment, often used for warmth or cooking. With cooler nights, incidents with fire are expected to rise.
“My biggest concern is how many people get hurt,” BIll said. “It’s terrible. I'm not that worried that it's going to burn my building down. It's more kind of hurt the people who are living in the tents, and all they're trying to do is keep themselves warm, because they have nowhere else to go right now.”
On Nov. 1, the 12News I-Team received tips on three different fires, two of which destroyed encampments.
“I’ve been knocked down so many times in such a short period,” said Aisha, who told us her belongings burned in a fire on Halloween night.
Aisha said she’d been living on the streets in “The Zone” for about five months when an alleged cooking fire from a neighboring tent spread and destroyed her tent space.
“We've been through so much,” she shared. “It's one thing after another and I'm not perfect, but God, you know, I just need a break.”
Aisha explained that she and her partner have been waiting on housing and that the city was planning to come and clean up the ashes of everything she had.
“When you come home to nothing and you already have nothing, starting over is rough” Aisha shared.
Morlan is trying to be part of a solution, serving on the Board of Directors at Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, the state’s largest homeless shelter. It’s part of the Human Services Campus, which is located in “The Zone.” The shelter, which has 600 beds, is regularly at capacity.
“What we need to do is we need to build a lot more shelters,” he said. “The city is working on building shelters, but we need to put up more. We need to put them up quickly. And we need to do them right.”
CASS has plans to add 200 new specialized shelter spaces for seniors and those experiencing mental illnesses over the next two years, according to its website.
In October, the City of Phoenix also approved a new shelter space and tiny home pilot that could house up to 250 people, with a goal to have it open and operating by May 2023, according to a Phoenix City Council session.
But it’s still not enough right now to cover the hundreds of people on the streets in “The Zone” and elsewhere throughout the city.
“We can pay for the fire department to come down and put out a tent fire, which is about the worst way to handle it," Morlan stated. "Or we can pay to help people have someplace to go so that they're not setting their tents on fire.”
Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist.