Joe Duhownik

PHOENIX (CN) — A small crowd gathered on the corner of Madison Street and 12th Avenue.

“England got stabbed,” a woman said, as more people joined the gaggle. “There was blood everywhere.”

“I saw him getting stabbed!” a man in a hoodie and baseball cap added, mimicking the motion with his fist.

A block to the east, police officers forced a woman off the ground and into a squad car.

“You’re hurting me,” she yelled as others stood watching silently. “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

An officer later said she was trespassing.

A bystander said police interactions like that happen “every day.”

“She’s a human being,” the bystander said. “Remember that.”

Phoenix Homeless Solutions officials spent Wednesday morning the same way they have every three weeks since May — clearing “the zone,” one block at a time. The city has cleared 11 blocks so far, with four to go. But now, they’re racing against a Nov. 4 deadline set by a Maricopa County judge.

A recent order from a federal judge may be the only thing to make that deadline possible, allowing the city to use a large outdoor space as temporary shelter for those still in the zone by November.

The zone is an area stretching from 7th to 15th Avenues between Washington and Grant Streets in which more than 1,000 people have set up tents over the last few years. The encampment first began growing after the 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling Martin v. Boise, which held that cities can’t enforce public camping and sleeping bans if there are more involuntarily homeless people than available shelter beds in the city.

The population in the zone ballooned to nearly 1,000 people at one time, but has gone down since Phoenix began clearing it. Officials estimate 368 people lived in the zone in September, but that number rose to 414 as of Oct. 10.

Now, the city is caught in what its attorneys describe as “a catch-22.” As officials work to abide by the state court’s order, they’re also grappling with a preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge this past December echoing the decision in Boise. That ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The city moved on Oct. 10 to modify that injunction, hoping to expand its options. It pointed to a recent amendment to another Ninth Circuit decision, Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, which clarifies Boise. U.S. District Judge G Murray Snow, a George W. Bush appointee, modified the injunction to mirror the amended Grants Pass ruling, allowing the city to enforce camping bans if there are enough shelter beds available or if there’s adequate public space for those people to be moved to.

Though not available yet, the city is working on a large outdoor space on Jackson Street to be used as a temporary shelter. The $5.4 million space is covered, will have bathrooms, showers, storage space and meal service, and will provide shelter to up to 200 people, according to the city’s website.

ACLU attorney Ben Rundall said he hopes the city will allow the ACLU to inspect the space and ensure its adequacy to house people, but he doubts it will happen. Snow declined to rule on what defines adequate space or whether to allow outside parties to inspect the site.

Joe Faillace, owner of Old Station Sub Shop on Jefferson Street and co-plaintiff in the state court case, said he fears the city is just shifting the problem elsewhere.

"They’re just moving them a quarter mile away, so I don't know how good it's gonna be," he said. "It seems like it's never ending.”

Most people living in the zone, when asked, said they hadn’t heard of the “Safe Outdoor Space,” as Phoenix calls it, and don’t know where they’ll go come time to leave the zone. One group of men said they had been told about it, though, and plan to be there by Nov. 1. They said they heard from city officials that the space will house only 50 people — not 200.

Homeless Solutions deputy director Scott Hall didn’t take questions during the Wednesday morning cleanup. Phoenix spokesperson Kristin Couturier didn't answer more clarifying questions in an email, like when the space will be ready or why the zone's population went back up.

Since May, the city has placed 260 people from the zone in an indoor shelter or treatment facility, saying it's made "significant progress" in an official statement sent by Couturier. But Faillace isn't too sure.

“They’re cleaning up the area, but there’s still people sleeping across the street every morning," he said. "They’re still pooping by the back of the restaurant.”

The next block is tentatively scheduled to be cleared Friday morning. It will be the first time the city clears two blocks in the same week.