Housing and Homeless

Clearing ‘The Zone’ addressed homelessness but didn’t end it

Homeless advocate weighs in on the effort to clean up homeless encampment and what needs to happen next

PHOENIX, Ariz. (STN) – Late in 2023, in response to a court order issued earlier that year, the City of Phoenix swept hundreds of tents, structures, and other makeshift shelters from a 15-block area referred to as “The Zone,” surrounding the Human Services Campus (HSC) just southwest of Downtown Phoenix.

While the intent of the November 4th sweep, triggered by a lawsuit against the city filed by several area business owners, was to clean up and ban campsites in the roughly 15-block neighborhood surrounding HSC, it came with at least one difficult question: Where do hundreds of people from The Zone go when they have no place to live?

“If you drive through our neighborhood, Madison, Jefferson, 7th Avenue to 15th Avenue, there are no tents, there are no tarps, [and] many signs saying ‘No Camping’ in this area,” said Human Services Campus CEO Amy Schwabenlender. “Homelessness is not solved by any means.”

Schwabenlender spoke during the December episode of ‘It Happens at STN’ just weeks after crews armed with front-end loaders, trucks and brooms cleared the area.

A major component of meeting the court order to clean up the area surrounding HSC was finding alternative shelter for the more than 1,000 people the City of Phoenix estimated were calling The Zone home.

Between May and October 2023, homeless advocates visited the streets where camping would soon be banned to meet with people and tell them that they would no longer be able to camp there.

“They were offered indoor spaces,” Schwabenlender said. “The court required them to do that before November 4th. The goal was achieved through lots of collaboration [between] HSC, UMOM, and a variety of other organizations working with the city to create more indoor spaces to offer people opportunities to go inside.”

And, it looks like, at least initially, it worked.

Based on an analysis by the City of Phoenix released on December 12, five weeks after the sweep, almost 600 people contacted and consulted before the sweep took advantage of the offer for indoor shelter or moved to a different location. The city says that as of the end of November 2023, “68% are still receiving services in a shelter or treatment facility or have been housed.”

Coordinating with the city, HSC has created some additional outdoor space adjacent to the campus that offers shaded areas, tent sites, and access to meals and showers. Schwabenlender says that it is a good option for as many as 300 people who could eventually be camping in that area.

Still, she said, there is a long way to go.

“Part of the next steps is continuing all these conversations about longer-term change and recognizing that if we don’t do more on prevention, the numbers will continue,” she added. “There are still over a hundred unsheltered people in our neighborhood overnight sleeping at bus stops and on the ground. People may not see that during the day. So our work continues. The challenges are potentially greater than they were before, but that’s what we do.”

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