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

The deaths of people living in "The Zone," trash and human waste littering the area, and tanking property values were listed by residents as reasons for the lawsuit.

PHOENIX — The City of Phoenix's "failure to address the growing homelessness crisis" is the main reason behind a new lawsuit filed by residents and businesses near
Arizona's largest homeless encampment, paperwork shows.

The lawsuit states that plaintiffs are property and business owners who live or work between 7th and 15th Avenues and between Van Buren and Grant streets in downtown Phoenix. This area, which has seen an increase in an unsheltered population in recent years, is known as "The Zone," and it's considered to be the largest homeless encampment in Arizona.  

The lawsuit claims city officials' actions violate Arizona's constitution by depriving the encampment's residents and the plaintiffs of liberty and property without any due process of law. The lawsuit also claims the city violates the state's constitution for not enforcing numerous laws within the encampment.

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The plaintiffs listed numerous aspects of the encampment that they found unacceptable, including:

  • A "great humanitarian crisis" driven by regular deaths within the encampment
  • Policies put in place by Phoenix officials neglecting and worsening the crisis
  • Residents being subjected to violence and property damage
  • Dropping property values
  • Trash and human waste littering the area

Ilan Wurman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in this case, hopes the lawsuit will lead to a declaration that the conditions in "The Zone" constitute a public nuisance and that the City will have to react to that.

"The conditions out there constitute a public nuisance," Wurman stated. "Once we get that declaration of a public nuisance, the City of Phoenix has no choice. It must abate public nuisance. That is the law."

Read the full lawsuit here:

"Nobody deserves to be in these conditions," said Karl Freund. "Period."

Freund is one of more than a dozen plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  He leases space near 10th Avenue and Madison Street.  He hoped to open up a real estate office there but hasn't been able to move forward. His hope now is that the city will help the people in the encampment connect with the resources they need.

"We’ve given up," he said. "We’re at the point now where we can no longer conduct business. Our employees do not feel safe down there."

In response to the lawsuit, Phoenix Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari called for more state and regional support to help the city address homelessness.

"No neighborhood should face the brunt of Maricopa County’s homelessness crisis — but because the campus was designed this way more than 15 years ago, and compounded by an alarming lack of regional or state support — that’s what it has become," Ansari said. "The unsheltered neighbors at the zone aren’t exclusively from Phoenix or this state – and the concentration is growing because it is the only place in the valley where help is visibly located."

In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. Boise that it was unconstitutional for municipalities to criminalize sleeping in public if the city doesn't have enough shelter beds.  At this time, the City of Phoenix does not have enough shelter space to serve all those who need help.

Neighbors in "The Zone" area claimed they started noticing a difference after this decision.

"We are not challenging that ruling at all," Wurman said. "We unquestionably do not want the City of Phoenix to send these homeless individuals to jail."

Instead, he feels the city is not doing enough to keep the area safe and sanitary.

"...to think it's okay to let this population live in such terrible conditions. We want the City of Phoenix to do something about this unimaginable situation we think it has created."

The state’s largest shelter, Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, is right in the heart of downtown Phoenix and in the center of "The Zone" encampment.

CASS added more beds in June, according to its website, bringing the total to 600, which are typically all full. The shelter estimates more than 1,100 people are living on the streets outside the shelter.

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In an email response, a spokesperson with the City of Phoenix said that copies of the lawsuit were released publicly before the City could review the claims. 

The spokesperson also pointed to what Phoenix has done to address homelessness. This year, the city is investing nearly $50 million ($49.9 M) in resources to help the crisis. About $28 million budgeted for shelters; $4.7 million for rapid rehousing; $8.3 million for outreach; and $9 million for mental health services.

And in 2022 the city has an additional $70.5 million from the federal government in ARPA, or COVID relief, funding earmarked for affordable housing and homelessness programs.

RELATED: As temperatures rise, so do heat safety concerns for Phoenix's growing homeless population

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