Another block in 'The Zone' is cleared, but the path forward for those living there is unclear

By Kirsten Dorman, Tori Gantz
Published: Thursday, September 7, 2023 - 4:46am
Updated: Thursday, September 7, 2023 - 7:04am

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Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
A piece of equipment resembling a backhoe scoops up and pushes items left by those who used to live in this portion of the city's largest homeless encampment.

The lawsuit against the city of Phoenix to disband its largest homeless encampment, known as "The Zone," is still ongoing. As the city cleared another block late last week, local activists gathered outside the barriers set up around it.

Gray clouds hung heavy early Friday morning as city workers and machines cleared out the area between Madison Street and 10th Avenue.

A man who goes by Queball has been unhoused for roughly four years. For about half that time, he’s lived in a tent around the corner.

“I know all the people, the people like me,” Queball said. “Even though I know that it’s a dangerous place, I still feel more comfortable here than I’d be anywhere else in the city.”

Queball said he knows the people that lived on this block, too.

“It is kind of heartbreaking to see,” he said, watching city staffers pick through piles of belongings left behind.

An older man who goes by
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
Queball has been living in a tent around the corner from where a portion of the "Zone" was cleared on Sept. 1, 2023. He says he and his dog, Baby Girl, call the area home and knew many of the people on the just-cleared block.

Neighbors from different mutual aid groups set up folding tables just outside barriers on either side of the block. Nick Anderson was among them.

“We’re down here about six times a month, every single Thursday and then every other Saturday,” Anderson said. “Just feeding folks, handing out whatever supplies that we can gather.”

He said they form relationships with the people living here. Most are elders, many people with disabilities that prevent them from working.

“They’re dejected, they’re demoralized, they’re upset,” Anderson said. “These are homes that they’ve built for themselves that have taken some time, and resources that they’ve just had to come by because nobody’s providing them.”

Rudy Soliz is the director of Operations at the Justa Center, right on the corner of the block being cleared.

He said they also get to know these folks well, and many of them are “trying to get their birth certificates or IDs, Social Security money or whatever it is, you know, or they’re stuck between 55 and 62 so they have nowhere to go right now.”

Soliz said he’s trying to encourage people from the block to look at the situation as an opportunity for a better future. He remembers being homeless for over five years.

“I always tell people, you know, don't judge them,” Soliz said, looking out over the small plots where a line of tents once stood. “This is somebody's grandmother and grandpa that you're talking about, that you're not, that you're passing by on the streets.”

A white sign with black print is propped up against the inside of a chain link fence. Text on it reads, in part: "This area is closed to camping to abate public nuisance."
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
The lawsuit brought by local business owners and residents against the city of Phoenix is ongoing. After a superior court judge ruled that the city must disband the "Zone," city officials began clearing blocks and posting these signs.

Jessica Spencer, who goes by "Lefty," said when people are moved, they often don’t stay sheltered.

“So all I have is hearsay, what people tell me,” Left said. “But a lot of people go into these hotels and then they’re hit with restrictions when they get there. They’re told one thing, and then they arrive, there’s a curfew, they can’t have their dogs, they can’t have whatever. And then it’s: You either follow our rules right now, or you’re going out into the heat.”

Advocates sometimes refer to common things that many shelters either have rules against — or require people to part with — as the "3 Ps." Pets, property and partners.

Scott Hall is the deputy director of the city’s Office of Homelessness Solutions.

“That’s why we created all these diverse sets of resources, create shelters that take partners, that take pets, and why we have property programs and different housing resources,” Hall said.

Still, according to Hall, “Do people go back to the street? Absolutely they do. It’s kind of like in treatment, relapse is a — is a reality.”

Hall said he’s working to gather data on how many people that happens to, to figure out next steps while efforts continue to get people into housing.

“Out of all the engagements we've had an 80% positive outcome of people taking placement,” he said.

An array of clothing is set up on a folding table between the sidewalk and road. A local advocate is seen handing a shirt to a resident of the
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
A group of local advocates set up folding tables outside the barriers around a block of the "Zone" being cleared. They handed out clothes, food, and drinks to those who came by.

Angeles Maldonado is the CEO of Ybarra Maldonado Law Group. She watched the street sweep from behind the yellow tape.

“Well, I think that this is a human rights violation,” Maldonado said. “What I’m seeing is just a bench of people being paid to dislocate people.”

Maldonado is a legal observer, volunteering with the National Lawyers Guild.

“We’re just watching and documenting,” Maldonado said. “I think people definitely act differently when they know they’re being observed.”

Even if people make it into shelters now, she said that’s not enough.

“They're being moved out of one street,” said Maldonado. “But the reality is, they have nowhere to go. Rents are too high, you know, unemployment, all the different reasons that we know are causing people to be [out] here.”

With his dog beside him, Queball watched the last of the mattresses, shopping carts and other items go into the garbage truck idling in the middle of the street.

To those not there, he has this message: “Think about them being the ones in it. You know, being there in the middle of it. See how that would make them feel, that their friends’ homes are all getting destroyed.”

While Queball said he doesn’t know when his block will be cleared, he’s preparing himself for the day city staff come.

“I don’t want to stay here,” he said, “but I don’t want to leave under a forced hand.”

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