The Zone: ACLU asks judge to find Phoenix in contempt over recent homeless sweep

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union announced on May 16 that they are asking a judge to find the City of Phoenix in contempt of a court order connected with a homeless encampment near Downtown Phoenix that is known as "The Zone."

Read More: 'The Zone': Here's what you should know about Phoenix's cleanup plan for the homeless encampment

In a statement, ACLU officials accused the city of violating a court order that was issued by a judge in December 2022. In a report on The Zone in March 2023, we mentioned that a Federal judge imposed a number of restrictions on Phoenix city officials with regards to homeless sweeps. The order preliminarily banned city officials from:

  1. Enforcing camping and sleeping bans against individuals who practically cannot obtain shelter, as long as there are more unsheltered individuals in Phoenix than there are shelter beds available.
  2. Seizing any property of the homeless without providing prior notice, unless the property is reasonably believed to be abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime of contraband.
  3. Destroying seized property without maintaining it in a secure location for a period of less than 30 days.

According to the statement released by ACLU officials on May 16, witnesses reported that during a cleanup on May 10, Phoenix city workers:

  • Seized and destroyed many unsheltered individuals’ personal belongings and property in this area.
  • Did not appear to store or mark collected items for storage
  • Did not make individual assessments before they forced those who are homeless into shelter spaces
  • Did not allow those who are homeless to return to the area that was cleaned
  • Threatened to cite or arrest without "first ensuring available shelter that fit the individual’s needs."

"What happened on May 10 is unacceptable. Not only did the city of Phoenix violate an active court order, but they failed to follow their own protocols to treat unsheltered individuals with dignity and respect during a cleaning," said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Jared Keenan, in the statement. "The city should be held accountable for its conduct before any future cleanings can take place."  

Officials with ACLU also said they are asking the court to prevent further sweeps in The Zone until they can comply with the December 2022 order.

Phoenix city official respond

In a separate statement, Phoenix city officials say they "vehemently disagrees" with the assertions made by ACLU.

"The City took a human-focused and dignified approach to the effort and we are disappointed that the ACLU and its plaintiffs did not address their concerns with the City prior to filing a motion with the court. Their assertions are not accurate," read a portion of the statement.

Full statement from the City of Phoenix

"The City of Phoenix vehemently disagrees with the plaintiff’s description of the May 10 engagement effort around the Human Services Campus. The City took a human-focused and dignified approach to the effort and we are disappointed that the ACLU and its plaintiffs did not address their concerns with the City prior to filing a motion with the court. Their assertions are not accurate.

In reality, what plaintiffs did not see was that City staff and partners engaged 60 people in the area and each one of them cooperated with the request to move their belongings. Of those engaged, 47 people were transported to indoor shelters or treatment programs, a nearly 80% success rate in placing people into an indoor space.

No individual’s property was destroyed without their permission and there were no issues with unattended property. Any items that were removed from the block were authorized to be removed by the individuals who were formerly camping in the area when they engaged with our staff and were offered a place in shelter. The City and our partners also stored belongings for five individuals who requested it and we are in communication with those individuals to access their property.

The City provided every individual camping on 9th Ave with two weeks’ notice that the block would be closed to camping on May 10. The City and our partners provided staff to help individuals pack all belongings and direct immediate transportation to indoor shelter.

The City developed its enhanced engagement process to comply with both the injunction issued by Judge Snow on December 16, as well as complying with Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney’s order to abate a public nuisance created by individuals camping in the right of way.

The City is disappointed by the ACLU’s motion. The City was working in good faith to come to terms in settling the case. The City expressed to the plaintiffs that there were operational issues we were working through and needed time to reach an agreement in which the City could meet the terms.

The City’s most urgent priority is helping get people into safe indoor spaces where they can receive services and work to end their homelessness. This attempt by the plaintiffs to derail and interfere with our efforts to assist both individuals experiencing homelessness and nearby business owners does nothing to help those in need."