By Aubrey Davis.
Debbie and Joe Faillace opened their sub shop over 35 years ago in downtown Phoenix, within walking distance from the Arizona State Capitol. They have enjoyed watching the Capitol community grow and flourish over the years. When the couple’s children were young, they even expanded the shop to make a nursery for their son so that he could stay with them during the day.
However, the shop is located in an area of downtown Phoenix called “the Zone.” The Zone surrounds Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, which provides a variety of resources to people experiencing homelessness. There are over 1,000 homeless individuals in the encampment, and the resulting conditions are having a detrimental effect on the businesses and residents in the area.
The Faillaces have had their shop’s windows smashed, tip money stolen, and human waste and drug needles left on the premises, and they claim that the “unsanitary and unsafe” conditions are scaring away customers. The Faillaces, along with several other property and business owners, filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix for the city’s failure to address the issues associated with the large homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix.
What Do the Plaintiffs Want?
The plaintiffs claim that the city’s actions and policies towards the homelessness situation have “simultaneously neglected and exacerbated the crisis.” They say the city is failing to provide enough housing, but also isn’t enforcing ordinances that would make the area safer.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the encampment a public nuisance dangerous to public health. This would require the city to address the encampment by moving it to another city lot and creating a structured camping area that it maintains. Alternatively, the city could provide enough indoor shelter for people on the streets so that the city could resume enforcing its anti-camping ordinances. The plaintiffs are also asking the court to find the city’s actions in “creating, expanding, operating and/or maintaining the Zone” unconstitutional.
Karl Freund is another business owner involved in the lawsuit. He remarked that it is “more of a humanitarian issue,” and he expressed concern over the encampment’s living conditions. He said, “Whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. We’ve got to try something else.”
What Does the Other Side Say?
In a statement, the city reportedly said it understood the factors contributing to an increase in homelessness and referenced its increased budget for homelessness programs. Phoenix City Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari represents district 7 where the Zone is located. She also pointed out the city’s efforts to combat homelessness but said they “need support from other cities as well as more state and federal funds to tackle the crisis.”
Homelessness activists aren’t confident that the lawsuit would bring any solutions. Amy Schwabenlender, the executive director of Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, explained “We see this high number of unsheltered people living around us because they want to access all of those services, yet we can’t shelter everybody.”
Elizabeth Venable is an organizer with the Fund for Empowerment, which is an advocacy group that works in the Zone. “People come to where there are resources,” she said. Venable, along with other advocates, does not think structured camping is a good solution. They are concerned that moving the individuals to a vacant city lot as suggested in the lawsuit will leave those individuals without access to resources that are available near the Zone. Furthermore, structured camping generally involves some type of law enforcement oversight, which Venable contends is “like a jail.”
People without homes have been camping in the Zone for years, but it is getting increasingly worse. Last July, an estimated 250 people were camped out in the area. That number has grown to over a thousand. This is likely due in part to a 2018 ruling in a case called Martin v. Boise. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that it was unconstitutional for cities to punish homeless individuals for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property if they could not obtain shelter.
The lawsuit filed in early August against the city of Phoenix argues that the city used the Martin v. Boise decision to neglect the Zone. Ilan Wurman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs remarked, “This is about the city of Phoenix using the Ninth Circuit decision as an excuse to completely wash its hands of the crisis.” The lawsuit included solutions the city could implement without violating Martin v. Boise.
Alberto Amaro, a worker for a cleaning company that picks up trash off the streets of the Zone, said, “It’s a little bit dangerous too. We’ve seen a lot of people get shot, get killed around here too. You just gotta be careful around here.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that the increase in the population of the encampment has resulted in increased levels of crime, trash, and human waste. The increase has been accompanied by a record number of homeless individuals dying.
What Happens Next?
The case will be heard by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. The judge will decide whether the encampment in the Zone is a public nuisance, according to Arizona law. The plaintiffs have asked for both preliminary and permanent injunctions to compel the city of Phoenix to take immediate action to “abate the nuisance” and refrain from doing anything that will “exacerbate the nuisance.” The judge has the discretion to issue preliminary injunctions, which generally last until the end of the lawsuit. At the end of the lawsuit, the judge will decide whether to issue permanent injunctions.
If the judge orders the city of Phoenix to take action to address the encampment issue, only time will tell if the city is able to take any meaningful action that will improve the situations for everyone involved.