Judge rejects Phoenix's request to dismiss lawsuit over alleged failure to address homeless crisis

A group of downtown Phoenix businesses and local residents have filed a lawsuit against the city over their alleged failure to tackle the homelessness crisis.

"We are not seeking money damages in this lawsuit. We just want the city to do something about this crisis," said attorney Ilan Wurman.

More than 5,000 people in Phoenix are unsheltered, a 35% increase over the past year. The lawsuit focuses on "The Zone," the largest and most well-known encampment in downtown Phoenix between 7th and 15th Avenue and between Grant and Jefferson.

"To walk around the property and see all the human waste, the people wandering up and down the streets, it’s disheartening," said Freddy Brown of PBF Manufacturing Conpany.

The plaintiffs filing the lawsuit all live, work, or own businesses in that area. Brown's family business has been in "The Zone" since the 1970s.

"In the Zone and its environs, laws are violated with impunity; residents are subject to violence, property damage, and other criminal and civil violations of laws designed to protect the quality of life of residents; property values have been erased; trash and human waste litter streets and yards," read a portion of the suit.

Businesses and residents say they have been trying to work with the city for years, but their patience has run out.

"We’ve tried to work with the city for over two years on this problem, and they have done absolutely nothing," said Brown.

The plaintiffs allege that Phoenix has effectively "invited" the homeless population in that area, but has not provided needed services for the unsheltered and has allowed illegal activity like drug use and domestic violence to occur in that area.

"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 read.

Attorneys say the city can do something as soon as tomorrow, suggesting the city set up a fenced area with police protection for the homeless population.

Other solutions were offered in the lawsuit, such as:

  • Moving the encampments to public land "where they would not constitute a nuisance"
  • Structured camping grounds on maintained city lots where laws are enforced
  • Allot enough shelter space and enforce bans on public camping

The city was served the lawsuit on the morning of Aug. 11.

"We want to force their hand with a court judgment, declaring the situation there is a public nuisance," said Wurman. "Once we have that declaration, we will happily work with the City of Phoenix to abate the nuisance, and that actually does something about this homelessness crisis."

Judge hears arguments; request to dismiss lawsuit denied

On Dec. 15, a judge heard arguments in the lawsuit.

During the court proceeding, the judge said the issues related to "The Zone" are complicated, and during the proceeding, he asked lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the City of Phoenix about The Zone's conditions and potential solutions.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs say they want the homeless cited for breaking laws in The Zone, but lawyers representing the city pointed to a 9th Circuit decision known as "Martin v. Boise," which states if there is a greater number of homeless than available shelter beds, the homeless cannot be prosecuted for involuntarily sitting, laying down, or sleeping in public.

According to the latest Point-In-Time count, there are about 3,100 unsheltered people in Phoenix alone.

The plaintiffs, however, say "Martin v. Boise" is being used as an excused. They believe the homeless should be moved to secured campgrounds elsewhere.

"There is a substantial part of the population that is service-resistant. Why are they there, and not in the beds? Why are other people occupying the beds? Yes, there’s always some people that can’t get into the beds that are available who otherwise want it, but they’re not getting into the beds because they want to be in a place that’s a low-barrier shelter, and that’s what the city is operating: a low-barrier shelter in plaintiffs’ neighborhood," said lawyer Ilan Wurman

The judged then asked city lawyers what they have to say about the homeless crisis getting worse, according to business owners.

"The city certainly agrees that we want to abate it. It’s just that these solutions, necessarily by virtue of constitutional concerns and cost concerns – and frankly, the fact is that things can only be built so quickly," said lawyer Aaron Arnson.

On Jan. 17, a judge denies Phoenix's request to dismiss the lawsuit. In their request, attorneys for the city told the court they are working to address homelessness, and that the business owners who are seeking relief are doing so in the wrong court. The judge, however, has found enough evidence to allow the lawsuit to move forward.

City leaders react to lawsuit

City of 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.  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 programs.

Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari

"I am not at all shocked to see this lawsuit and I deeply empathize with the neighbors, business owners, providers and City staff down by the Human Services Campus who have been working for well over a decade to keep the neighborhood in a manageable condition, and most importantly, to get our unsheltered neighbors the resources they need, and into stable housing. I visited the Human Services Campus on my first day in public office, and every day after that, I’ve been dedicated to finding solutions that better serve all involved. No neighborhood should face the brunt of Maricopa County’s homelessness crisis — but because the campus was designed this way more than 15 years ago, and compounded by an alarming lack of regional or state support — that’s what it has become. The unsheltered neighbors at the zone aren’t exclusively from Phoenix or this state – and the concentration is growing because it is the only place in the valley where help is visibly located.

But we must move away from this model as it clearly isn’t working. During my first year in office, I have consistently advocated for a regionalized solution to this crisis. I’ve pushed to ensure that any new projects the city funds have been away from "the Zone," including new shelters the city has opened in recent months, such as the one on Washington Street operated by St. Vincent de Paul, which is working exceptionally and served more than 400 individuals since May. We need more of this and fast. We have also spent more dollars than ever to fund neighborhood blight programs, new transitional housing projects, outreach specialists, heat relief supplies and so much more. In this year’s budget, we’re funding nine new Homeless Services positions, and they will be directly reporting to our City Manager to fast-track action.

And while the City recovers from the ongoing pandemic and new public health challenges, rising costs and steady eviction rates have crushed all the progress we’ve made. We need regional and state support, and we need it now. By next summer, my hope is that Phoenix-funded efforts will result in a drastic reduction in the number of unsheltered individuals in the zone. We need that same amount of focus from surrounding cities, counties and our state to ensure sustainable access to shelter and housing for all."

Councilman Sal DiCiccio

"For more than 30 years, this neighborhood has been victimized, and the perpetrator, City of Phoenix, has not only failed to address the situation, but has been an accomplice to the problem. Yesterday, a group of neighbors, business and property owners took matters into their own hands and filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix to protect their property and neighborhood. The City failed them, and now this has to be handled by the court. This neighborhood is victimized by violence, infested with drugs, human waste, blight, and personal and property damage on a daily basis. No neighborhood should have to bear this burden."

Continued coverage