It’s known as “The Zone”—a vast section of downtown Phoenix where 1,000 homeless people have set up camp. And it’s led to a spike in violent crimes like shootings, stabbings, and rapes, as well as the destruction of dozens of businesses in the area. But despite government’s obligation to all its citizens’ rights, the city is refusing to take action, and in fact is even making the situation worse.
Now, the Goldwater Institute is demanding that officials enforce the law.
For months, Phoenix officials have been shunting the city’s homeless population into “The Zone.” And city leaders have reportedly instructed police officers to take no action, resulting in an area that has now become one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments.
A group of Phoenix citizens has now filed a lawsuit, arguing that the city is effectively destroying their property by ignoring its responsibilities, and is fostering a nuisance in the middle of the city. That last point is based on a 1985 Arizona Supreme Court decision in which the justices held that inviting vagrants into an area can constitute an illegal nuisance. But it’s not just the crime—it’s also the pollution. People in The Zone report that its inhabitants urinate and defecate on the streets, on sidewalks, and on both buildings and vacant property. But Arizona law forbids the city from “maintaining” any “activity” that can pollute public waterways—and The Zone is within easy walking distance of the Salt River. As we note in our friend of the court brief, by maintaining The Zone, the city is violating state environmental laws.
That’s a textbook example of a nuisance. In a 1938 case, the state Supreme Court found Phoenix liable for maintaining a faulty sewage treatment facility on its property, which frequently broke down and caused pollution. “While it is true that a sewer system is, indeed, a vital necessity for the maintenance of health in any large municipality,” the court said, “even that necessity does not authorize the municipality to injure the person or property of another without responsibility.” The same is true here: while homelessness is a problem in most cities, Phoenix cannot maintain an encampment of vagrants—many of them violent criminals—who cause dangerous biohazards in the middle of downtown.
That’s why our brief urges the court to issue an injunction blocking the city from maintaining The Zone in Phoenix or from restricting police services to the hardworking business owners affected by the encampment.
Among the businesses harmed by The Zone is the Arizona Rock Products Association (ARPA), the state’s oldest trade organization devoted to the mining and rock industry, whose headquarters are located within The Zone. Ever since the city established The Zone, ARPA’s employees have been forced to put out fires on their property and to clean up needles, used condoms, and human waste left by The Zone’s residents. Moreover, residents of The Zone have trespassed on ARPA’s property, including by breaking into cars and even, on one occasion, entering the building and helping themselves to food in the refrigerator. ARPA is one of the many crucial contributors to Arizona’s economy, all of whom deserve to have their public officials enforce the law and protect their rights. Yet thanks to this nuisance the city has created, ARPA is finding it increasingly difficult to do business at all in Arizona.
It’s not compassion to let people live on the streets, in an atmosphere riddled with unpoliced gang violence. But it’s even more outrageous for the city to withhold police protection from the innocent property and business owners who happen to be located in The Zone. Hardworking Phoenicians should be able to rely on the public services their tax dollars pay for—and their elected officials owe them a duty to enforce the laws.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.