Phoenix begins clearing out 'The Zone' homeless encampment

By Kirsten Dorman
Published: Wednesday, May 10, 2023 - 8:57am
Updated: Thursday, May 11, 2023 - 9:50am

Audio icon Download mp3 (2.32 MB)

Crews remove belongings from a tent in "The Zone"
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Crews remove belongings from a tent in "The Zone" in downtown Phoenix on May 10, 2023.

The city of Phoenix started clearing out its biggest homeless encampment on Wednesday. About 1,000 people have been living in the area known as “The Zone.”

In March a county judge said the city had to clear out the camp after several downtown business owners sued.

It was cloudy and windy on Wednesday morning when about a dozen people moved suitcases, wooden pallets, and all kinds of belongings out of the tents and other self-made structures that lined the sidewalk.

Sarah Bass, who used to live in “The Zone,” was watching.

“It’s like a third-world country right here, you know what I mean, in the summertime,” said Bass.

The encampment sprang up around Phoenix’s biggest homeless shelter, and the neighboring Human Services Campus. Bass says both are overwhelmed.

“That’s why people originally started camping on the outside of it, was because they were waiting their spot in line,” said Bass.

Sarah Bass
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Sarah Bass used to live in “The Zone”

Nearby businesses filed a lawsuit against the city last August, saying “The Zone” and its occupants hurt their businesses by presenting safety and health concerns. A Maricopa County judge ruled in their favor in March, ordering the city to disband the encampment by July 10.

The question now is: Where will the people who were living here go?

A federal appeals court has ruled that cities can’t remove homeless encampments unless they provide somewhere else for residents to go.

Rachel Milne is the director of Phoenix’s Office of Homelessness Solutions.

“Everything we offer will definitely be voluntary. We’re not forcing anyone to go anywhere,” said Milne.

Milne says the city is taking people to shelters and exploring creating a “safe outdoor space” for those who can’t or don’t want to go indoors.

“Moving forward, the big change is that folks will not be able to go back to the street once we’ve cleaned it,” said Milne.

Back on the street, Bass says the shelters people were being taken to yesterday won’t be enough.

“There only two places they’re offering to put them. Which are two shelters, and those places are gonna fill up fast,” said Bass. “And then what?”

Standing outside a barricade, former “Zone" resident Bonnie, who didn’t want to use her last name for safety reasons, wishes the community had more empathy.

“Rather than turn your nose up to it, maybe try to help somebody,” said Bonnie.

On Wednesday, the city only cleared out one of the several city blocks. It plans to clear more, but hasn’t yet set a date.

Business Housing