PHOENIX — The ACLU of Arizona says it is suing the City of Phoenix in order to block resumed sweeps of a huge homeless encampment downtown that they say has displaced people and destroyed identification documents, prescription medications and other belongings.
The ACLU says it filed the complaint late Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Arizona in a move to halt the city's possible resumption in December of the sweeps that were paused at the beginning of 2022.
“Rather than confront its housing crisis head-on and invest in sustainable solutions to homelessness, the City is terrorizing the very people it should be helping,” the complaint says.
The city of Phoenix said it could not comment on the specific claims because it had not received a copy of the complaint by midday Thursday.
But city spokesman Dan Wilson outlined the strategies that Phoenix has taken to address homelessness, including the dedication of nearly $50 million during the last fiscal year on solutions such as shelters, more affordable housing and mental health services. He said the city added 592 new beds to homeless shelters in 2022.
The federal complaint is the latest move in an ongoing tug-of-war between advocates and cities in Western states over how best to tackle the problem of homelessness.
Previously, the city of Phoenix conducted sweeps three times a week, dispatching city workers accompanied by police officers, often in the predawn hours without warning. Many people have said that they lost paperwork, medicine and other belongings — even the cremated remains of a loved one — because they weren't nearby or couldn't rescue their things in time.
The city of Phoenix earlier argued that the sweeps were done to protect the health and safety of people living in the camp.
Earlier this year, a group of business owners and residential neighbors of the encampment known as “The Zone” filed a lawsuit against the city, asking Phoenix to declare the site a public nuisance. The city moved to dismiss that action, saying it doesn't have a constitutional duty to protect the property of those suing.
According to an annual count, more than 6,000 people in Phoenix were experiencing homelessness in January, with more than half of them living unsheltered on the street.
Street homelessness has increasingly come under fire from politicians and housed residents in many cities in West states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, has embraced clearing tent encampments, saying it is neither compassionate nor safe to allow people to live outdoors.
But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that it’s unconstitutional to cite or arrest people for sleeping in public when there is no shelter available.
The sweeps are also common and controversial in California, where the nation's largest homeless population was estimated as 161,000 in 2020.
In late September, homeless people and their advocates in San Francisco sued the city, demanding that it stop harassing and destroying the belongings of people living on the streets.
In a notable case last year in Los Angeles, a big encampment that expanded during the pandemic was removed overnight from a park near downtown. It sparked a huge March 2021 protest that resulted in the arrest of more than 180 people, including two independent journalists.
City Council members in Portland, Oregon took a different tack on Wednesday, allocating $27 million to build a network of designated camping areas for homeless people.
Meanwhile, three neighborhood groups recently balked at joining some others in signing a “good neighborhood agreement” with the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, saying they want to first know the possible effects of a new 50-bed shelter for homeless women.
In California, Newsom has paused $1 billion of the state's budget going to local governments, saying local plans to combat homelessness are insufficient, and that he seeks to reset the state's approach ahead of his second term in office.
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