ACLU Fights to Stop Sweeps Against Unhoused People in Phoenix

May 24, 2023

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the city of Phoenix, Arizona, over its homelessness policies. The ACLU is asking a court to stop the city from conducting sweeps on encampments of unhoused people, saying that the city is kicking them out without providing shelter beds. The city, in response, claims it is providing services to all residents and shelter to anyone who wants it.

In August 2022, a group of owners of business properties filed a lawsuit against the city complaining about the presence of unhoused people in a downtown area known as “the Zone,” where hundreds sleep every night. And in March 2023, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, describing the encampments as a public nuisance and ordering the city to remove them by July 10.

“The city had a practice of rounding people up pre-dawn, giving people 10 minutes to gather their belongings and then destroying any [remaining] belongings.”

But a federal court had already pointed in a different direction. In November 2022, the ACLU had also sued the city—to protect the rights of unhoused residents. And the following month, a district court judge issued an emergency injunction against the city of Phoenix. According to the ACLU, the order prevents Phoenix from taking any actions that harm unhoused people. 

“The city had a practice of rounding people up in the pre-dawn, early morning hours, doing warrant checks, giving people 10 minutes to gather their belongings and then destroying any [remaining] belongings in those locations,” Benjamin Rundall, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona, told Filter. “They did this through city workers and police officers.”

Rundall said that unhoused peoples’ rights are protected by the 4th, 8th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution. These constitutional protections, he continued, mean that the city must provide practical shelter to people, and can’t criminalize them simply for being unhoused. The city government must also give proper notice to people before trying to move them and their belongings—not just a 10-minute warning before garbage trucks show up.

“After the injunction, the court made it very clear they’re not allowed to use the anti-camping or anti-sleeping ordinances to criminalize homelessness anywhere in the city; they cannot destroy unsheltered people’s property without due process; and even if the property is unattended, they have to create a storage system for at least 30 days and give unsheltered people an opportunity to get back the items taken from them.”

The ACLU now argues that the city has violated the order and is in contempt of court. According to witness statements submitted to the court, the city conducted a sweep on May 10 targeting the “Zone” on 9th Avenue between Washington and Jackson Streets. Witnesses say the city seized and destroyed people’s belongings—including tents, beds and bikes—without tagging or safely storing them. Officials, they say, tried to coerce people into “limited and possibly unavailable shelter spaces,” and threatened people with citation or arrest if they didn’t move. 

The city was planning another sweep, on May 24—but that has been stopped, for now.

The city says it will offer housing to anyone affected, but can it? The city’s own data, released April 20, show that only 34 beds were available of 1,017 total at the city’s four largest shelters. Those shelters were at 97 percent capacity. As the Phoenix New Times reports, there are also smaller shelters throughout Maricopa County, but they, too, may not have capacity.

Estimates of the people living in the Zone range from 679 to over 1,000, making the availability of a bed for everyone look unlikely. The city says it is “exploring creative solutions” like renting hotel rooms and finding vacant government buildings to shelter people.

The city was planning another sweep, on May 24—but that has been stopped, for now. The ACLU is asking the court to modify its injunction from last year, and demand that the city show cause. The court is requiring the city to stop any further sweeps, and to file a response by May 26.

Rundall said it was the city’s past enforcement actions that forced unhoused people into the Zone area downtown, where they are at severe risk from high temperatures.

“We have said we think the Zone is a state-created danger, the risk of dying from a heat-related illness in that area is very high,” he said. “It’s concrete blocks of asphalt, rocks and dirt—there’s no shade or cover [other than tents], so you see a high number of people die [there] and generally throughout Phoenix.”

The city has approached the federal disaster agency FEMA, requesting it provide relief money to address heat deaths. But it doesn’t accept many of the ACLU’s arguments.

“The City is disappointed by the ACLU’s motion,” Kristin Couturier, senior public information officer for the city of Phoenix, told Filter. “The City was working in good faith to come to terms in settling the case. The City expressed to the plaintiffs that there were operational issues we were working through and needed time to reach an agreement in which the City could meet the terms.”

The city, she continued, has provided services and housing to individuals affected by the removals. She said city staff engaged with 60 people on May 10, all of whom cooperated with requests to move their belongings, and that 47 people were given immediate transportation to shelter or connected to treatment services, a “nearly 80 percent success rate.”

The city further states that no one’s belongings were destroyed without their permission, that all residents were given at least two weeks’ advance notice, and that five people were permitted to store their belongings to retrieve them later. It claims to be in compliance with both court orders—to clear the Zone area and to respect people’s rights.  

“This attempt by the plaintiffs to derail and interfere with our efforts to assist both individuals experiencing homelessness and nearby business owners does nothing to help those in need,” Couturier said.

“I saw a woman who was being coerced into leaving basically all her property behind, she was crying.”

One advocate for unhoused people who witnessed the May 10 city sweep agrees that the city gave two weeks’ notice on this occasion, but said that its workers illegally destroyed people’s property, threatening them and failing to tag or store items.

“I saw a woman who was being coerced into leaving basically all her property behind, she was crying,” Elizabeth Venable, founder of Fund for Empowerment, told Filter. “I saw a man who was not there for the cleanup and his property was in the process of being trashed when he showed up.”

Venable also said that despite the city’s claims, there is not appropriate shelter to meet everyone’s needs—including, for example, people with physical disabilities or mental health challenges, or those who own dogs or cats.

Phoenix’s unhoused population has grown in recent years. The latest 2023 head count in Maricopa County showed 9,600 unhoused individuals—a 7 percent increase from 2022, and a record high. (The number of unsheltered people did decrease, however.)

The current crisis is over 10 years in the making. From 2012, the city’s unhoused population began growing after several years of decline. And from 2017, the unhoused population increased rapidly each year. The longer-term increase has primarily concerned people living on the streets, as some years the sheltered unhoused population fell.

In statewide terms, Arizona is an unwelcome outlier. A federal report to Congress on the national unhoused population showed that in 2022, Arizona had over 13,000 unhoused people, most of them unsheltered. While the national unhoused population increased by less than 1 percent between 2020-2022, it spiked by 23 percent in Arizona.

According to Arizona Central, the state’s housing department director and advocacy group Arizona Housing Coalition agree that the crisis is caused by a severe lack of affordable rental properties for low-income residents. 



Photograph of encampment sweep in Phoenix by Fund for Empowerment via Facebook

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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