'City of a Thousand': Downtown Phoenix's tent city explodes at alarming rate

Located within a pocket of streets and sidewalks in downtown Phoenix, the homeless crisis has exploded as there are more than a thousand unsheltered people living on the streets in this area known as "the zone."

There's been a nearly 450% increase in people camped out on the streets in one concentrated area since April 2021. You may have passed by it or even driven through it.

What's surrounding Arizona's largest homeless emergency shelter is tough to absorb and very concerning to property and business owners there.

How did it get to this point, and what's being done to address this complex crisis?

Enter The Zone

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Tucked away in the concrete jungle of downtown Phoenix is a hidden community. Streets covered in nylon and polyester tents spanning several blocks.

For almost four years, Greg Doepker has experienced chronic homelessness, and for close to the last three months, he's been sleeping in a tent.

"The reality here is completely different than the general reality of the planet," Doepker.

The reality starts from 9th to 13th avenues, between Jefferson Street and just south of Jackson. Nearly 1,100 unsheltered people, all with different stories, call this their home.

"About 7:30, 8 o'clock in the morning, 20 gunshots going off, which meant there were two different guns going at each other, with a non-profit right over there serving us breakfast on Sunday, so welcome to your Sunday morning here," Doepker said.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, people experiencing chronic homelessness usually have "complex and long-term health conditions" including mental illness, substance abuse, or physical disabilities.

"There's a lot of trauma here. I've done rehab twice," Doepker revealed.

He overcame his addiction to alcohol some time ago. To make money, he donates plasma and keeps everything he needs in his backpack.

"You can steal everything here, but if you steal this, I'm screwed," he said, referring to his backpack.

Growing numbers of those living unsheltered

Maricopa County's last official unsheltered homeless count in 2022 was about 5,029, marking a consistent year-to-year increase since 2014, when the count was 1,053, according to the Point-In-Time 2022 snapshot by the Maricopa Association of Governments.

The 2021 count was not taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of May 10, the majority of people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County are in Phoenix with about 3,096 people unsheltered.

That's a 30%  jump from 2020, increasing by 2,380.

For more context, the number of unsheltered people on the streets of Phoenix was 771 in 2014.

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‘Now it’s called the Danger Zone'

Just a few hundred feet away from Doepker is the "Downtown Compound," a property owned by Angela Ojile. She's also the president of the Madison Pioneers Coalition – a group of business owners and residents in the neighborhood concerned about the influx of unsheltered people.

"People call it ‘thunder dome.’ It used to be called ‘the zone,’ now it's called ‘the danger zone,'" Ojile said.

People often use the bathroom near her businesses, she says, leaving behind human waste and rat issues. People blocking the driveway and drug activity is normal, Ojile claims.

"I've walked out my front door and seen a man lying there dead. I've seen four people go out in body bags. How many people see that once in their neighborhood? That was just one week," she said.

Her warehouse, filled with antiques and vintage furniture, is often avoided.

This is now one big storage unit, but Ojile did want to start a business in the warehouse, and couldn't seem to get it off the ground because the homelessness crisis just continued to get worse. Now, she's surrounded by one of the largest tent cities in America.

"I can't make it a business when you have people afraid to come to someplace, or they're so uncomfortable, and you can't even get in," Ojile said.

‘It keeps getting larger and larger’

"We saw this coming. We're so behind the eight-ball. Why? Why isn't this a state of emergency?" Ojile asked.

The population in "the zone" only seems to grow. Meantime the city of Phoenix is investing $50 million toward homelessness solutions, but patience is dwindling.

"If Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, with all of their talent and all of their money, can't solve the problem, and it keeps getting larger and larger, how the hell is Phoenix going to do it?" Doepker said.

He believes sobriety and mental health should be prioritized before housing and jobs, and Ojile is in constant contact with the city, saying there needs to be more urgency.

"We can't just clean it up and make it look good because we got a Super Bowl coming. We gotta care enough about this now and these people out here now," Ojile said.

When Ojile was asked if she thinks "the zone" could become like Los Angeles's Skid Row, or San Francisco, she said, "I would never have thought that that could happen down here, but now I do."

In part two of this four-part series, we look at how strained the resources are that are being provided by Central Arizona Shelter Services, known as CASS. They continue to add more beds but keeping up with the growing number out on the streets is an uphill battle.

Beds are a temporary band aid, shelter employees say, and that the homelessness crisis is tied to an affordable housing crisis.

Click here for more information on homelessness in Maricopa County.

'City of a Thousand': Advocates blame housing crisis, rent hikes for homeless encampment boom (part two): Read here