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  • Emily Rotondi

The City of Phoenix Just Dismantled One of the Nation's Largest Homeless Encampments: What Does This Mean for the Former Residents?

Courtesy of Sebastian Bergmann

The blue tarps and multi-color tents that once dotted the sidewalk are gone, and with them the ‘Zone,’ a sprawling former homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix. The many Arizonans who once formed a community along these sidewalks now must find refuge elsewhere.  

In March, an Arizona judge declared the Zone a ‘public nuisance and ordered the city of Phoenix to clear it out by November 4Located in front of Phoenix's largest homeless shelter, the Zone was originally created as an overflow line for those awaiting access to the shelter. But as the shelter became increasingly overwhelmed, so too did the Zone, until it became the semi-permanent home of 700-900 residents, and one of America's largest homeless encampments.  

Many business owners and residents located on the affected streets filed a lawsuit declaring the encampment a ‘great humanitarian crisis.’ They described the Zone as a “crime-ridden nightmare” due to “loitering, drug use and camping. Consequently, on May 10, the city began  dismantling the Zone, gradually reclaiming each block. On November 1, the city successfully removed the last block of the Zone; now all that remains of the once sprawling rows of tents is forgotten trash.

For business owners situated in the Zone, this marked the reclamation of their neighborhood. However, for the residents of the Zone it signified the permanent eradication of the community, homes and lives they had built along the roads near 15th Avenue.  

Erasing the Zone—and resettling its many inhabitants—was a tangled and arduous process. Instead of removing large numbers of people at once, Phoenix set out with a different approach to remove the Zone block by block, week by week. The systematic removal of the Zone was accompanied by efforts of Phoenix nonprofits, who tried to persuade Zone residents to move into temporary hotels, shelters or short term beds. Phoenix also set up a $13 million campsite, complete with food, bath rooms and showers, in a nearby parking lot for those unwilling or unable to seek refuge indoors. Approximately 80% of Zone residents accepted the city's offers of temporary housing. But for some residents, the city's efforts failed to calm the fears associated with forced eviction. 

Vanessa Martin, 38, a former Zone resident of five months, faced anxiety as her move-out day approached and it became time to dismantle the tent she and her boyfriend shared. Over the five months Martin lived in the Zone, she carved out her own corner amongst the sea of tents, where she had even taken the effort to weed and plant a faux flower garden to adorn the entrance to her makeshift home.  

This is all just a nightmarish thing, she said to AZ Central on the day the city came to clean out her block. Her former experiences with shelters had done little to ease her nerves at the thought of returning to their confines, leaving her with uncertainty as to where to next pitch her tent. The morning the city workers came to assist with moving out, she was unable to locate her boyfriend, forcing her to pack up their life alone, unsure when or if he would return.  

When her belongings were eventually packed up and stacked in bins behind her, she cried while telling the nonprofit workers, I’m not ready to go yet.  It is unknown where Martin or her boyfriend live now.  

However, other residents viewed the Zone’s end as an opportunity for a fresh start and an improved life. Brian Patrick, 53, had been yearning to escape the strip of asphalt he called home, and saw the city's clean up mission as his ticket out. With the assistance of nonprofit workers, he moved into an Extend-a-Suites hotel.  

Patrick echoed Martin’s reservations at the thought of sleeping in the crowded settings of a shelter, and considered himself ‘blessed’ for the hotel option. 

It couldn't have come at a better time for me, because I have a hard time with the heat…So it was a total blessing, on my part,” he told AZ Central. After leaving the Zone, Patrick acquired food stamps and Medicaid benefits, and also fixed his truck. “The city is doing a great job with me,” Patrick said. “CBI (Community Bridges Inc) and the city, even though I was upset with them at first, they’ve done quite a bit to help me and the situation I was in.”

Despite the situation, many residents of the Zone shared Patrick’s optimism about what leaving the Zone could bring for them. Daniel Mackey, 62, described living in the Zone as a “living hell.” Enduring the Arizona sun, surrounded by dirt and nursing an infected foot, he simply wanted out.  

With the help of nonprofit Community Bridges, Mackey and his tent-mate, Barry Hayes, 67, were able to get placed in a shelter.  They hoped the move to shelter would eventually lead to a permanent home. “We’re doing fine, and we’re hanging tough,” Hayes said. “Our life has improved overall, I think, since we left the Zone.”

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