Brown v. City of Phoenix — The Extinction Of The Zone

In Phoenix, with temperatures this summer averaging over 100 degrees, Arizonans know the hazards of the heat more than most. The dangers of heatwaves have risen exponentially for the city’s five million residents, especially considering the recent Maricopa County Superior Court ruling on the clearing of “The Zone” — the largest homeless encampment in the state. But this concern with the homeless population in Phoenix is far from new. With the wave of NIMBYism, or “Not In My Backyard” spreading across the country, The Zone is nearing extinction.

Arizona’s largest enclosed population of homeless individuals, The Zone has existed for years, spanning the city’s blocks between 7th and 15th Avenues and Van Buren and Grant Streets. About a 20 minute walk from the State Capitol Building, The Zone is centered around The Human Services Campus, which is a base for more than a dozen nonprofits dedicated to serving the homeless population. Consisting of approximately 1000 inhabitants, The Zone has long been called an “eyesore” by the city’s residents, with small businesses and property owners alike fighting for its removal. With the recent rise of NIMBYism, wherein residents designate unwanted constructs in their area for removal in social movements and protests, The Zone’s status has quickly become subject for evacuation in the past few years.

In 2018, the case of Martin v. City of Boise concretely addressed the existence of homeless areas like The Zone in Phoenix. This landmark decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals established that cities cannot “criminally cite unhoused people” for sleeping on public property when there is no viable alternative provided, such as open shelter beds. In the years since, Western cities such as Phoenix have struggled with the implications of clearing homeless encampments while following this precedent. “It’s created an era of uncertainty,” voiced Arizona Department of Housing Director Sheila Harris concerning the decision. But in the years since the fateful case, Phoenix has been working harder than ever to rid the city of The Zone.

Filed in August 2022, the case of Brown v. City of Phoenix concerned a conglomerate of neighboring businesses and residents suing The Zone. Claiming that its presence not only dulled the visual aesthetic of the city, but that its human pollution was environmentally damaging, the petitioners dubbed the encampment “a public nuisance.” This common law nuisance theory argued by the plaintiff combated the precedent of Martin v. Boise, with Arizona State University professor and attorney Ilan Wurman stating,  “Nothing in Boise allows let alone compels the City to manage the problem in a way that creates a public nuisance,” prompting the court to side with the plaintiff in April.

In a post-trial decision on September 20, Judge Scott Blaney set the date of November 4 by which Phoenix has to permanently clear the homeless encampment. The order, which provided no avenue by which the city should take action, highlighted the mandates of the removal of all tents and structures and the maintenance of clean public property, stating: “The situation inside the Zone has gotten progressively worse, not better, since 2018 and has become dire since November of 2021.” Phoenix officials, who had requested a deadline of August 2024, faced a harsh blow with this decision. “Let the city keep doing this good thing without the burden of further court action,” said Justin Pierce, an attorney for the city, during the two-day revisiting of the case in trial. Arguing that Phoenix would need at least nine more months in order to set up shelter beds for the homeless population as they were cleared, this new timeline is “not feasible or realistic,” said Deputy City Manager Gina Montes

Already, the homeless population in Phoenix has been facing undue burden from the suffocating heat. The Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health, the primary service for burn injuries during the hot Arizona summers, reported a staggering 26% of their patients being unhoused. “We really worry about it when it gets into the triple digits,” said Dr. Kevin Foster, director of the Arizona Burn Center, “once it gets above 100 we really start to have to be careful. And once it gets above 110 — that’s the danger zone.” The duration of this danger zone has only grown this past year, with maximum temperatures surpassing 110 degrees well into August. 

And the clearing of The Zone happening in tandem with the houseless injury spike is no coincidence. With unhoused people comprising the largest population of heat-related deaths, at around 41% as of this past August, Maricopa County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jeff Johnston has already predicted a higher mortality rate than that of 2022. As the houseless population is pushed out onto the streets without the protection of shade and tents, it is becoming harder than ever for them to escape the heat.

In the past four months, the city has only been able to clear about half of The Zone. At the beginning of this month, Phoenix again requested an extension to vacate the area only to be denied once more, a hearing now set for November 30 to determine their compliance with the court decision. With the streamlined deadline now fast approaching, city officials have been forced to remove inhabitants with speed rather than care, pushed onto the streets with no city-provided solution and falling victim to the climate’s oppressive blanket of heat. With November 4th only a few days away, Arizonans have only one question: Where will everyone go?


Sophia Berg is from Gilbert, Arizona, studying English.

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