In the middle of downtown Phoenix, Arizona, is a sight that might surprise anyone accustomed to Seattle’s homelessness crisis: a sprawling tent encampment that is, for the time being, exempt from sweeps. The “Zone,” as it’s known locally, is situated around the city's Human Services Campus (HSC), which includes everything from shelter beds to ID restoration services to a chaplain. While the encampment has included more than 1,000 people at times, there are currently around 880 living there, according to Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), which operates 600 shelter beds on the campus.
The encampment stands in stark contrast to Seattle’s encampment situation, which is defined by clusters of tents scattered across the entire city, all of which are at risk of being swept at any time. While many unhoused folks still camp further out in dry riverbeds called “washes” and other secluded places, Phoenix’s sidewalks are largely free of tents.
At first glance, it seems like a vast improvement over Seattle’s approach. Instead of chasing people around the city, a significant portion of the unhoused population remains in place next to resources specifically built to serve them. While the establishment of the Zone wasn’t exactly a policy decision — according to Eric Brickley, “half” director of Feed PHX, an organization that does mutual aid and harm reduction in the Zone, it was established because campers organized and refused to leave — the state is now looking to codify such camps.
Senate Bill 1581, sponsored by Arizona Sen. David Livingston (R), would allow for sanctioned tent encampments and make $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding available to cities and counties to set them up.
The bill passed the state’s Senate and is making its way through the House, with the potential to land on the governor’s desk before the end of the session, June 30. That, plus another $100 million earmarked for housing, is an indication that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature is coming to understand homelessness as an urgent, nonpartisan issue, Glow said.
“The actions being taken by our state legislature are historic, because we have people on both sides of the aisle working toward solutions. […] We’ve never had a proposal to put $150 million into housing and homelessness, so that’s historic in itself. People are paying attention,” she said. These politicians are coming to understand, she said, that if they want to reduce the impact of homelessness on their constituents, they have to do something to help those who are homeless.
Is that something sanctioning encampments? It really depends on who you ask.
Rich Heitz, the lead street outreach case manager for Phoenix Rescue Services, said that while his relationship-building style of outreach would be greatly aided by having people remain in place, there was a lot more to consider.
“I think there’s pros and cons […]. A sanctioned area would be good, but where would that sanctioned area be? Would there be bus lines? Are there going to be any kind of services for them? Or is it just a spot,” he said. While praising the Zone’s proximity to services, both on the HSC and through nearby organizations like his own, he also acknowledged the reality of trash and violence, two things that have been issues there.
“When you get so many people together like that, a lot of attitudes arising, man. Especially when it’s hot. There’s a lot of irritability going on,” Heitz said.
The bill would require cities and counties to provide sanctioned encampments with sanitation services, around-the-clock security and on-site case management.
As for Brickley, he was a little less ambivalent. His organization, he said, was “100 percent” against the bill.
“I think an approved campsite where people can literally exist there isn’t inherently bad,” he said, but said he was very worried that, if inadequate space was provided, it could lead to increased criminalization of unhoused people living outside the sanctioned area.
“There’s no language in the bill that describes how much camping must be approved. Once again, the city and the state have been approaching this obvious lack of housing in a way that will lead to more carceral solutions,” he said. Police involvement, he added, was “shoehorned” in throughout the bill.
Indeed, whether it will be done right is a big bone of contention. Many in the homelessness advocacy world share Brickley’s view of sanctioned encampment bills: They are often put forward by right-wing think tanks to criminalize homelessness under the guise of compassion, similar to what Compassion Seattle attempted to do locally.
Glow, however, is in favor of this one. She acknowledged that the bill was originally brought to Arizona Republicans by the Cicero Institute, a Texas-based think tank that has successfully pushed measures to criminalize homelessness elsewhere. But, while CASS and others initially complained that they hadn’t been consulted on the bill, she said her organization and other groups were ultimately able to work with Livingston to alter the bill into something they feel will genuinely help.
“The only reason I got behind this bill is because I knew we could work to make the language better,” said Glow.
While the version currently posted to the Arizona legislature’s website includes language directing cities to “enforce ordinances in place that prohibit sleeping or camping in public places” or risk losing funding, as well as language directing outreach teams to include members of law enforcement, Glow shared a completely overhauled version with Real Change that she said she expects to be adopted shortly. The revised bill, developed in cooperation with Livingston and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, includes no language requiring cities or counties that receive funds to undertake enforcement against homeless people and allows for contracted private security to accompany outreach teams instead of law enforcement.
Regardless, the question of whether having sanctioned encampments would embolden law enforcement to sweep, and even arrest, unhoused individuals outside of that space will necessarily remain open until the bill passes. What’s not a question is that — and this might sound familiar to Seattleites — there simply aren’t enough shelter beds or housing options for the amount of people living unsheltered in Phoenix right now. There’s nowhere for them to go, and there won’t be in the near future. Heitz agreed with those statements without hesitation, as did Brickley and Glow.
While Seattle’s debate about what to do with all the people the city doesn’t have shelter for centers on whether or not sweeps are justified — or legal — Phoenix’s brutal summer heat makes the need for an interim solution even more urgent.
“According to [the city’s] numbers, 20 percent of the unhoused population died last summer. Some of us think that it could be as high as 25 percent. And we’re rolling into this section where it’s going to be even hotter. We’d like to see the city treat this like the crisis it really is,” Brickley said.
Even if sanctioned encampments helped connect their residents to services, both Brickley and Glow said that getting people inside an air-conditioned structure was a higher priority. That, Glow said, was “more valuable than telling people in this heat to have a tent.”
Brickley went a bit further, suggesting that the urgency of building air-conditioned structures obviated the need for sanctioned tent encampments completely. Noting that the HSC recently stood up a shelter in a Sprung structure — a massive tan festival tent with a 40-foot container carrying air conditioning equipment attached — in six months for around $1.2 million, Brickley asked why the state didn’t simply put all the money into that. Tents on the ground, he added, have already been tried once, on a smaller scale during the height of the pandemic.
“People were dying inside of these lots, dying in their tents because of how hot it was out. Like, 150 degrees, reaching outrageous temperatures inside these hot tents,” he said.
While the bill would still allow cities to invest in designated spaces for tents, Glow said she fought from very early on to expand its language to allow spending on structures of all types.
“That’s why it says tiny homes and Sprung structures and pallet homes and things that can be built quickly. We need to save lives. It does fund those things,” she said.
In theory, she added, if a city or county wanted to spend their entire allotment on standing up Sprung structures, they could. She urged anyone who is advocating for that to take it up with local politicians.
A recent point-in-time count, which is a method notorious for coming in low, put the number of unsheltered individuals at around 3,100 in Phoenix itself and 5,000 total in Maricopa County. With regards to Brickley’s questions about whether the sanctioned encampments or new structures would be adequate to serve Phoenix’s unhoused population, Glow did not mince words.
“Are we going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good? We have to start somewhere,” she said.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is Real Change’s associate editor; he is temporarily on location in Phoenix, Arizona.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Central Arizona Shelter Services does not run the Human Services Campus around which "The Zone" encampment is centered. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Jun 22-28, 2022 issue.