Joe Duhownik

PHOENIX (CN) — City attorneys spent the second of a two-day trial involving a Phoenix homeless camp occupied by nearly 1,000 people establishing what city has done and is doing to solve its homelessness crisis.

The 19 residents who sued the city in October over “the zone,” a multi-block homeless camp occupied by hundreds of people living in tents and other temporary structures, have maintained that the city has turned a blind eye to the issue. But witnesses called by the city on Tuesday painted a different picture.

Plaintiffs in Brown v Phoenix ask that Maricopa County Judge Scott Blaney issue a permanent injunction against the city, forcing it to enforce camping bans and clear the zone of all tents by the end of the summer.

“The city is making no effort to remove the involuntarily homeless from the sidewalks,” plaintiffs' attorney Steve Tully said in closing arguments.

The city prefers that Blaney allow it to solve the issue at its own pace without court interference, suggesting a nine-month timeline, which multiple witnesses testified is more realistic than a summer deadline.

The plaintiffs — property owners in the area between 7th and 15th Avenues and Washington and Jackson Streets — report witnessing over the last five years violent crime, drug use, sex acts, urination, defecation and more just outside their homes and businesses.

But violent crime in the zone is down more than 11% since the Phoenix Police Department implemented a new crime suppression strategy in January, Commander Brian Freudenthal testified Tuesday. Property-related crimes went down nearly 25%.

Police are still enforcing laws, despite what plaintiffs say, Freudenthal continued. The agency made 86 arrests in 2022 related to drug use, loitering, obstruction of sidewalks and roadways, and illegal camping. It also installed more security cameras as well as enhanced sensors that can detect gunfire and track its source.

Plaintiffs' attorney Steve Tully said those actions aren’t enough to reduce crime to safe levels. He said the easier solution would be removing all of the tents at once, as a reduction of nearly 1,000 people on the street would naturally reduce crime rates significantly.

But Freudenthal said his hands feel tied, balancing orders from two different courts.

A 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling in Martin v Boise held that cities can’t enforce anti-camping ordinances if there aren’t enough shelter beds available for those they remove from the street. A federal judge in Arizona used that decision in December when he told the city it can’t clear the zone without ensuring shelter availability or other forms of aid.

That ruling contradicts Blaney’s preliminary injunction in this case in March, which ordered the city to take steps toward clearing the zone and start enforcing camping bans in areas it has cleared.

“It would help if we had a straight answer between the two courts,” Freudenthal said from the witness stand. “One court is saying we’re doing too much, and another is saying we’re not doing enough.”

The city has cleared three blocks of the zone so far, taking weeks in between to ensure each person has somewhere to go, whether it be a shelter bed or somewhere else. The next cleanup is scheduled for Wednesday.

While clearing blocks of the zone, outreach teams ask people if they have any family or friends that can help them back onto their feet, said Jeremy Huntoon, an outreach coordinator with the Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions. If not, they work with the people to get them into shelters. By the time an area is cleared of tents, Huntoon said he’s “very confident” that those who remain on the street have nowhere else to go.

Tully again said this approach isn’t enough, suggesting the city should be running people’s social security numbers and tracking down family members rather than relying on self-reporting.

“I’m not doing background checks,” Huntoon said.

Without doing so, Tully said, there’s no way to know if someone is truly involuntarily homeless, so allowing them to stay on the street only fortifies the issue.

Tully said in closing that the only way to ensure Phoenix follows through in its slow-moving plan to clear the zone is to issue a permanent injunction with a hard deadline. Blaney shared the plaintiffs’ concern, asking Pierce what assurance he can provide that the city would abate the nuisance without an order.

“[The city] is going down this path, with or without injunction,” Pierce replied in his closing argument. He said that the city has already budgeted large amounts of money for its efforts, including building a new outdoor campsite with the potential to serve up to 400 people in lieu of indoor shelter.

“We were preparing for this before this court ever issued that order,” he said of the March preliminary injunction.

Blaney asked counsels to submit proposed findings of fact and orders of law by August 11, indicating that he’ll rule shortly after they are submitted.