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Why neighbors are fighting Phoenix over conditions in homeless encampment, ‘The Zone'

Currently, city cleaning crews pick up from curb to curb, avoiding tent spaces and personal items. The work is all done by hand with shovels, rakes and pitchforks.

PHOENIX — Freddy Brown Jr. thought he knew what he was getting into with PBF Manufacturing, his family’s longtime casket-making shop in downtown Phoenix.

“We've been here since ‘74,” Brown explained. “My family owns the building, owns the property, owns the business. We are centrally located.”

His shop is in the heart of downtown Phoenix, at 12th Avenue and Jefferson Street. But lately, what once was the perfect spot has come with a new set of challenges.  

RELATED: Calls for help soar in Phoenix’s largest homeless encampment

“This stain right here on my sidewalk is urine,” Brown said, pointing to a spot on the ground just outside his black security gate.

Over the past couple years, he said he’s been experiencing unanticipated changes in the neighborhood brought on by a growing homeless encampment, which at its peak this year, was home to more than 1,000 people sleeping on the streets outside.

“I've had to clean piles of human feces,” he said. “Urine is a constant problem. All of our doorways have been sealed or blocked.”

The conditions are brutal not just for Brown and his employees but for those staying in the encampment, according to several people experiencing homelessness interviewed by 12 News.

“I've seen a lot of drugs,” said Jennifer Owens, who went to the encampment in September after her living situation fell through. “I've seen a lot of urinating. You'll see a lot of stuff that shouldn't be done on public streets.”

“It's horrible out here,” said Andrew, who only wanted to use his first name. “People are in horrible conditions. People have got to go poop and pee in buckets.”

Freddy Brown Jr. said safety is also top of mind. His staff used to be able to easily walk over to the sub shop for lunch. Now he says they can’t go out their front door and have to go in a group if they plan to walk through the neighborhood. 

“We no longer use our front entrance to walk there because of the interactions they've had with some of the unsheltered people,” he explained. “And then a while back, I did have an employee assaulted with a pipe.”

The environment hasn’t cost Brown many customers, as they mostly ship items out, but he says it has cost him job applicants, cleanup time and security.

“We are trying to redo the outside of our building,” he explained.  “Make it a little more appealing. But I can't find a construction company willing to work down here because they're worried about theft, vandalism, and just having stuff go missing.”

From Brown’s view, the city is dropping the ball

“We understand that the City of Phoenix is doing things,” Brown explained. “But it's been over two years. So that is why we've filed the lawsuit because they continue to drag their feet. “

In August 2022, Brown and more than a dozen other property owners in the area filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix, claiming the city isn’t doing enough to address concerns in the encampment. 

The lawsuit documented open drug use, vandalism, violence and waste – both human and otherwise.  The documents show that plaintiffs are asking for a judge to declare conditions in the encampment a public nuisance that the city would have to abate.

A spokesperson for the City of Phoenix said the city couldn’t comment on pending litigation.  The city filed to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing, in part, residents can’t tell the city what to do, and that court wasn’t the proper venue to find a solution.

During an evidentiary hearing on the case in October, city witnesses admitted the conditions had gotten worse but denied that it wasn’t acting to address concerns.

“They’re doing something,” Aaron Arnson, attorney for the City of Phoenix, told the judge. “It’s something the plaintiffs don’t like and 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.”

The city doesn’t directly provide homeless services and contracts most of the work out.  

“It breaks my heart,” said Scott Hall, the city’s Deputy Director of the Office of Homeless Solutions.  “People deserve to be safe, to be indoors, to have security, and that’s what we’re trying to do in the City of Phoenix.”

Hall said the city worked with partners to add more than 400 shelter beds this year, with another 700 slated to become available in 2023.  He also noted that it’s a priority to engage with each person in “The Zone” to try and get them off the street, which could include connecting with family, placement in a shelter, housing or treatment options.

On Monday, Hall joined the 12 News I-Team at sunrise to catch the city cleaning up the encampment.

The current approach is for the city's Street Transportation team to snake through a route within “The Zone,” roughly between 9th and 15th Avenues from Jefferson to Jackson Streets.  The cleanups happen three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. 

The team cleans the roadway from curb to curb, avoiding tent spaces and personal items.  The work is all done by hand with shovels, rakes and pitchforks.  Heavy equipment, like a street sweeper, could damage someone’s tent, which the Hall said the city wants to avoid.  The cleaning crew is flanked by private security and followed up by a contracted bio-wasted cleaning service.

These sweeps used to look different.

Before this year, people living on the streets had to pack up and move their encampments before the cleanings, or else their belongings could have been thrown out by the Street Transportation team alongside Phoenix Police.  But after complaints that the City was trashing things like IDs and birth certificates, it scaled back.

The complaints also drew the attention of the Department of Justice, which opened an investigation last August 2021 into Phoenix Police to determine, in part, whether the agency unlawfully seized or disposed of belongings.  As of the end of October this year, the DOJ was still interviewing police staff and observing training as part of the investigation.

They basically pick up trash out of the streets,” Brown said, noting the city usually won’t pick anything up on his property.  “Two hours later, you wouldn’t know they were here.”

As soon as the City cleans up the streets, more garbage seems to pile up.

“I don't think it's fair that me or my employees have to clean this,” Brown added. “And I don't think it's fair that the City of Phoenix’s tax dollars are going for cleanups that are ineffective.”

The city says Public Works empties dumpsters daily and they’ve recently restored grates on storm drains to avoid build-up in the drains.

“The city is doing more than it ever has to address the issue of homelessness and get people connected to the right resources,” Hall stated.

Hall added that the city is planning to start enhanced cleanings in the encampment by the end of the year.  Under this new plan, those staying on the streets could move their belongings and put them in storage while the city cleaned.  There would also be a way to reclaim abandoned belongings during cleanings.

A new judge took over the lawsuit in early November, and it’s up to him to decide if the Zone is in fact a public nuisance or if the case should be thrown out as the trash keeps piling up.


Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist. 

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