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Judge hears arguments over conditions in 'The Zone,' Phoenix's largest homeless encampment

More than a dozen property owners in downtown Phoenix sued the city in August wanting the city to do more to address what they're calling a "public nuisance."

PHOENIX — Human waste, trash, increased violence and vandalism.

These were the top concerns witnesses testified to in court Thursday as a judge heard arguments in a lawsuit over conditions in Phoenix's largest homeless encampment.

As of this week, nearly 1,000 people are sleeping on the streets in an area known as "The Zone." It's the area surrounding the Human Services Campus, a few blocks away from the state's Capitol.

More than a dozen property owners in downtown Phoenix sued the city in August wanting the city to do more to address health and safety concerns. The lawsuit asks for a judge to declare the conditions a "public nuisance," which the city would have to address.

RELATED: 'Failure to address the growing homelessness crisis': Residents, businesses file lawsuit against Phoenix

Three property owners who are part of the lawsuit testified to worsening conditions during and after the pandemic. They described human waste in their yards and on their buildings.

"If you find there's a public nuisance, it's not just something saved for the political arena," said Ilan Wurman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "It means the city has exercised its discretion in a way that violates the law."

The City of Phoenix did not dispute in court that there are problems in this encampment downtown but argued that court is not the way to solve this complex crisis. 

Last month, the city filed to dismiss the lawsuit.

"They're doing something," said Aaron Arnson, attorney for the city. "It’s something the plaintiffs don’t like that it's not happening quickly enough.  That doesn’t mean that nothing is happening and the city isn’t taking efforts to abate what is no doubt a terrible condition downtown."

City witnesses spoke to the rise in the unsheltered population throughout Maricopa County and as of right now, the city doesn't have enough shelter space to keep up. 

One city witness noted there were fewer available beds counted in 2022 than there were in 2015, stating that there were probably changes in funding and that costs likely increased.

The 12News I-Team uncovered that the City of Phoenix dedicated nearly $100 million dollars in COVID-19 relief money to address homelessness and affordable housing, but as of right now, the city's online tracker shows that less than 10 percent of those funds have been spent.

The city argued it’s actively working to spend those funds, like identifying new shelter spaces with others already in the works to online later this year and into next year. But sometimes, one employee testified, that opening a shelter could take months to open up due to permitting and finding contractors and staff to run these facilities.

The city said it’s also working on a new plan for what they’re calling “enhanced cleaning” in The Zone that will include hazmat crews --- that could start as early as December.

The judge said she will issue any decisions in this case at a later time.

RELATED: ‘Building housing isn't a quick process’: Phoenix weighs in on millions in COVID relief money for homelessness that hasn’t been spent

RELATED: Valley's homelessness rate jumped 36% during pandemic

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