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Phoenix has spent $98,000 in taxpayer money fighting lawsuit where judge ordered city to clean up 'The Zone'

More than 800 people were counted living on the streets in the encampment, according to a tally done by the Human Services Campus Tuesday morning.

PHOENIX — The City of Phoenix is faced with a decision after a judge ruled they must clean up conditions in "The Zone," the city's largest homeless encampment.

In August, more than a dozen residents, property owners and business owners in the area hit a breaking point, suing the City of Phoenix over conditions in the encampment.

The judge's ruling orders Phoenix to clean up the encampment, but as of Tuesday afternoon, the city's attorneys and spokespeople have not answered questions on how the city will respond to the ruling.

RELATED: Judge: Phoenix must clear tents located on public property in 'The Zone'

The city has already spent $98,000 in taxpayer money fighting the case in court, according to a city spokesperson.

"Things have not gotten better," said Freddy Brown Jr. "It’s actually gotten worse."

Brown, one of the plaintiffs, witnesses the crisis in "The Zone" day in and day out when he works at his family business, PBF Manufacturing, at 12th Avenue and Jefferson Street.

He detailed seeing open drug use; human waste; violent crime; vandalism and his employees harassed. 

"There's a fire," he said during an interview with 12News Tuesday morning, pointing to a plume of smoke visible from his shop. "That's a tent. The black smoke means there’s a lot of plastic involved in it."

He was right.

The fire at 8th Avenue and Madison Street displaced at least three people, including Tina Morales.

"We lost everything," Morales said. "Everything we own."

Morales said she hasn't been able to find a shelter where she wouldn't have to leave her dog and partner. She shared she's been on a housing waitlist for months and without anywhere else to go; she stays on the streets.

"What is taking so long?" she asked.

The judge's order

In a ruling issued Monday, a judge sided with Brown and other plaintiffs, calling the encampment a "biohazard" and a "public nuisance" the city would have to abate. Part of the judge's ruling ordered the city to remove tents and other obstructions on sidewalks and streets.

More than 800 people were counted living on the streets in this neighborhood, according to a tally done by the Human Services Campus on Tuesday morning.  

The tents and other structures line the streets and sidewalks from roughly 8th to 15th avenues from Jefferson to Jackson streets.

The city rebutted by arguing that citizens can't instruct them on how to enforce their own policies.

Judge Scott Blaney ruled Monday that the lawsuit's plaintiffs had shown that Phoenix is allowing the encampment to become a nuisance.

"The evidence also strongly suggests that the city created and maintains the dire situation that currently exists in the Zone through its failure, and in some cases refusal, to enforce criminal and quality of life laws in the Zone," the judge wrote in the ruling.

Before the ruling, the city argued in court that it was addressing concerns in the encampment, like approving funding for additional shelter space and starting an enhanced cleaning pilot program.

City attorneys argued the city couldn't criminalize homelessness because of the federal court ruling in Martin v. Boise. Under that ruling, governments aren't allowed to arrest someone just for sleeping outside if there aren't enough shelter beds available.

This judge called the city’s interpretation of Martin v. Boise erroneous, ultimately ruling they weren’t doing enough to enforce the rules.

"Basically, from the beginning, all we've asked for is that the people that are down here follow the same rules and laws we all have to follow," Brown shared.

The judge pointed to another example in his ruling, detailing that one of the property owners put up dinosaur sculptures to try and keep his property edges clear.

The judge noted that the city told the property owner he needed to take them down, but the city hadn’t taken steps to move the tents, which created  “obvious health and safety hazards.”

The city is not doing interviews

In emails on Tuesday, a city spokesperson said the city wouldn't be doing interviews about the ruling but did provide a statement.

In part, the statement details that the city is "reviewing the specific details of the judge’s ruling as we continue our mission to create safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness."

The spokesperson wrote that the city "added 592 new shelter beds, and 800 shelter and transitional beds will become available in 2023 and 2024, with 280 of those beds expected to open this summer."

The statement further details that the city "has committed $140 million dollars to homeless solutions, with a significant portion of that funding going toward funding ongoing projects that will stretch into at least 2024."

The 12News I-Team reported earlier this month that the city has only spent about 12% of about $120 million in federal COVID relief earmarked for homelessness and affordable housing.

"This case is not about solving homelessness," said Ilan Wurman, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in this case. "This case is about solving the humanitarian crisis that the city has allowed to fester in downtown Phoenix."

Wurman considers the judge's ruling a win, although it's not clear yet what the city's next steps will be.

"They really have two options which is to appeal or to work with us toward a settlement," Wurman explained. "And we hope they do the right thing."

Wurman said his team would be open to a settlement where they would ask the city to comply with many orders the judge has already laid out.

Wurman pointed out that he feels the ruling is a win for those living unsheltered in "The Zone," too.  In court, he said his clients have tried to work with the city to come up with possible solutions like structured campgrounds but feel not enough has been done to meet the needs of all residents in the neighborhood, including those living on the streets.

"The city has only been focusing on the long term," Wurman shared. "And now this ruling will force them to focus also on the short-term."

Judge Blaney said the city must be prepared to demonstrate its compliance with his order in a trial scheduled for July 10.

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