Michael McDaniel/Courthouse News

PHOENIX (CN) — Phoenix residents and business owners are suing the city over what they claim is a public health crisis in their neighborhood.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Maricopa County Superior Court, the group seeks a declaration that homeless encampments on city property in a downtown area near shelters are a public nuisance. Additionally, they allege the city is negligent in enforcing criminal law in the area, nicknamed “The Zone,” leading to rampant drug use, public health hazards and increased homicide.

The residents and businesses claim that overflow shelters shut down in 2017, causing a crisis in their neighborhood that only worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city moved the encampments onto public lots,” the complaint says. “Since this past year, the encampments have proliferated on all the public sidewalks such that there are semi-permanent dwellings and furniture, including bookcases and couches.”

The group alleges the city’s inaction shows a lack of initiative to find a solution for the affected community.

“The City’s policies are not rationally designed to address any of the social ills facing the residents of the Zone and are exacerbating rather than alleviating their problems,” the lawsuit claims. “The City is entitled to adopt irrational policies; but if its policies create a nuisance and cause damage to the residents, workers, and property owners in the Zone, as they have, then the City is liable for those damages and the court may enjoin the nuisance.”

The lawsuit quotes a recent Guardian report stating that around 500 homeless people died in the Phoenix area from January to June 2022. Of those deaths, nearly 10% were due to homicide.

In the 57-page complaint, the group details personal testimonies and photos of IV drug use, public defecation and vandalism in the neighborhood that they claim go unpunished. The defecation amounts to a public health nuisance, they say.

“Arizona law… provides that ‘[a]ny condition or place in populous areas that constitutes a breeding place for flies, rodents, mosquitoes and other insects that are capable of carrying and transmitting disease-causing organisms to any person or persons’ constitutes a ‘public nuisance[] dangerous to the public health,’” the lawsuit states.

The residents are also challenging the right for individuals to loiter on public sidewalks, citing seemingly unenforced municipal public loitering codes.

“The City’s municipal code provides, ‘Any person who appears in any public place, street, alley or sidewalk in the City in a drunken or disorderly condition, or lies or sleeps in any public place, or on any street, alley or sidewalk in a drunken or disorderly condition, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,’” they claim.

The group also claims the city is violating their state constitutional right to liberty and prosperity by operating, expanding and creating “The Zone” near their properties to cope with the problem.

“The City of Phoenix is violating Article 2, Section 4 of the State Constitution by creating and/or maintaining a large homeless encampment on public lands in the Zone, and then refusing or failing to provide sufficient police protection against acts of private violence in and around the Zone,” the lawsuit says.

According to the group, there are reasonable solutions for dealing with the issue. They aren’t seeking the removal of the homeless population but rather judicial relief from the city in perpetuating the crisis.

“[The city] may create structured camping grounds on city lots where cleanliness is maintained and other laws enforced,” the group suggests. “Or it may establish sufficient appropriate shelter space and once again begin enforcing the prohibitions on public camping. There is no shortage of options by which the city can comply with the laws against public nuisance.”

The residents and business owners are represented by Stephen Tully and Michael Bailey of Tully Bailey.

Kristin Couturier, a City of Phoenix public information officer, says leaders have been and are currently working towards addressing issues for the unhoused in Phoenix.

"The City of Phoenix is committed to addressing the needs of all residents and property owners as we work with local and regional partners to address the complex issues surrounding those experiencing homelessness," she said. " The City developed Strategies to Address Homelessness and in the last fiscal year dedicated nearly $50 million dollars on solutions including shelters, increased affordable housing and mental health services. You can read more specific information in the Phx Newsroom. The Phoenix City Council also recently approved $70.5 million in affordable housing and homelessness programs."