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

The City of Phoenix has begun the process of cleaning up a homeless encampment in the downtown area known as "The Zone."

The cleanup plan was released on April 21, almost a month after an Arizona court ruled that the city must keep the area free of the homeless. The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit that was filed by businesses in the area.

The first clean up happened May 10.

Here's what you should know about what will happen.

What is ‘The Zone’?

The area now known as ‘The Zone’ is a homeless encampment that lies between 7th and 16th Avenues from Jefferson Street to the railroad tracks, just outside the Human Services campus.

According to some figures, just shy of 900 people live there.

Why is there such a hurry to clean it up?

As mentioned above, an Arizona court has ruled that the City of Phoenix must keep the area free of the homeless.

Under the ruling, the City of Phoenix is ordered to not continue maintaining a public nuisance on the public property in the Zone, and maintain its public property in the area to a condition that is free of:

  1. Tents and other makeshift structures in the public rights of way
  2. Biohazardous materials including human feces and urine, drug paraphernalia and other trash
  3. Individuals committing offenses against the public order

"The City shall devise and carry out as soon as is practicable a plan that achieves compliance with this Order," read a portion of the court documents.


Arizona court rules that City of Phoenix must keep 'The Zone' free of the homeless

A judge on April 28 denied Phoenix's request for a stay after the city filed a notice of appeal.

As of now, the city has until July 10, 2023, to show evidence of the cleanup before a judge.   

In addition, the city is also ordered by a judge to cease what they deemed as arbitrary enforcement of the city code against an entity known as Phoenix Kitchens over artistic sculptures that were installed next to the entity's building.

What will city officials do to clean up the area?

On April 21, officials say they will begin conducting a more "enhanced cleaning" approach for the area.

"We help people pack up their items and move them into a safe place as we come in and clean the street," said Rachel Milne, Director of the City of Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions. "While in that safe place, we are able to talk to them, offer them a variety of shelter options, treatment options, and then transport them immediately if they are interested."

Officials hope to put many of these homeless residents indoors, such as hotels and new shelters. Another possible option is buying a plot of land for those who want to continue to live outdoors.

As for the cleanup on May 10, city officials started on 9th Avenue, between Washington and Jefferson Streets.

The clean-up started at the crack of dawn, with bulldozers, brooms, hazmat suits, and helping hands.

Scott Hall, Deputy Director for the Office of Homeless Solutions, is heading up the slow-motion operation.

"We were able to offer every single person here an indoor space, along with the five that we did earlier. That’s why we do it at this pace. To try to have those resources available," Hall explained.

The city reports that seven people declined help, and 33 agreed to abandon the block in favor of a shelter where they’re met with a welcome note, a warm bed, a hot shower, and access to any help they may need.

"Our main goal is to get them off the streets and that can be a range of services from mental health to drug abuse," says Marisol Saldivar with St. Vincent de Paul.

On May 10, FOX 10 also caught up with some residents who were happy to be leaving the area.

A man named Mark cried tears of joy talking about his next move with his wife Danita. They've lived in The Zone for two years, and they’re happy to finally be getting off the street.

Were there cleanings before?

There have been five cleanings since December 2022.

Beginning with the May 10 cleanup, however, people in the area who are homeless will not be allowed back.

"Previously, if folks did not accept one of our options, they would be allowed to return to that block and camp," said Milne. "However, moving forward, that will not be the case. Once we have shut down a block and offered everyone options, they won't be able to return. Our next one is scheduled for May 10, and that will be the first time that we close down a block to camping after we have cleaned it."

So far, more than 67% of those who are homeless have accepted services. The city also plans to add an extra 800 shelter beds by the end of 2024, in addition to leasing hotel spaces, identifying more land opportunities, or creating an outdoor space.

"So, an area for people that might not be ready to go inside, or if we don’t have enough indoor places to offer a place where people could remain outside could camp outside, but in a structured area with restrooms, with hand washing, with security," said Milne.

Since 2021, $140 million has been committed to addressing these issues, and the city has launched a new dashboard to track how these projects are funded.

What are businesses in the area saying about the cleanups?

Following the plan's unveiling, business owners in the area are skeptical that the plan will make any difference.

"I'm praying that it does happen, and it follows the schedule that they are planning, but I have been here long enough to see the ups and the downs," said Miguel Samaniego.

Samaniego, who owns a garage in the area, said the homeless crisis is taking a toll on his business. In fact, things have gotten worse since the lawsuit was announced.

"It’s definitely gotten worse in the last four or five years, but the last two weeks have been a little out of control," said Samaniego. "Urine, defecation, drugs, you know, needles on every corner, and they are just doing whatever they want."

What about the homeless people in the area? What are they saying about the cleanup?

Some of the homeless people in the area have also expressed their skepticism, as well as concerns.

In late April, we interviewed Clifford Mishler, who had been living out of his car in The Zone for about a month by that point. Like the business owners, Mishler also expresses skepticism over the cleanup plan.

"I don’t want to be homeless. I am homeless because of circumstances of life, and I am trying to get back on my feet, but it is wrong. At least show them, physically, a place where they are going to be. Don’t say you know we have everything fixed up. They are dancing around. Where are they going to go?" said Mishler.

We spoke with a man named James Thomas on May 9, who said he was unsure of where he will go.

"People really actually make a living out here on the streets, and for there to be a blessing if someone could come in and find a solution. We need a solution because all of these people are going to migrate," said Thomas.

How are homeless advocates dealing with the cleanup?

Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) CEO and President Lisa Glow said her organization has been working with the city to get those experiencing homelessness into shelters.

"I know there are a variety of places that have stepped forward to CASS, and also to the city to offer places where they have open beds," said Glow.

However, Glow said whether there are enough shelters remains to be seen.

"I don't think there are enough county-wide, but that's something the city, county, and now the state are working on to help open more locations, more beds, more hotels," said Glow.

Glow said once people come into the shelter, the next step is to work with them to help end their homelessness permanently.

"There are other places, churches, or salvation army or places that may have beds. The question is whether those beds are beds individuals will go to, because it might be specific for substance abuse treatment or otherwise," said Glow.