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Phoenix faces dueling lawsuits over homeless crisis as advocates scramble for more shelter

PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix is facing dueling lawsuits as it tries to manage a crisis of homelessness that has converted its downtown into a tent city housing hundreds of people as summer temperatures soar.

The city was ordered by the local Superior Court to clear out the downtown encampment because it is considered a “public nuisance.” But Arizona's American Civil Liberties Union argued in a federal lawsuit that the city is violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people by slowly clearing the area known as “The Zone.”

The dilemma faced by Phoenix is an example of the balance municipalities across the United States now must strike when trying to satisfy the demands of residents and business owners while respecting the rights of homeless people.

Seattle faced a similar situation in 2020 when a woman sued the city, alleging that a sweep of the homeless encampment where she lived would violate her rights.

In New Mexico, as the city of Albuquerque worked to prohibit panhandling along roadways, the ACLU fought for that right.

U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow on Friday declined a request by the ACLU to declare Phoenix in contempt of a ruling he issued in December that ordered the city to refrain from enforcing camping and sleeping bans against people who cannot get shelter. He said he would not bar the city from further cleanups at the encampment site pending another hearing set for next month.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist.

But a Maricopa County Superior Court judge overseeing the case filed by business owners and residents who say the encampment is a public nuisance ordered Phoenix in March to make a plan to clear the tent city quickly.

By May 10, the city started the first round of the plan, cleaning one block of the encampment. But the ACLU said city employees seized and destroyed the property of homeless individuals and refused to let them return to the area after it was cleaned.

“The city should be held accountable for its conduct before any future cleanings can take place," Jared Keenan, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, said in a statement.

The city has said it “vehemently disagrees” with the ACLU's assessment.

Amid the back and forth in court, Phoenix area advocates have scrambled for more shelter space for homeless people as the hot season begins.

Shelter space in an old motel came online Friday, but with just 52 beds it’s hardly enough as Arizona’s largest county announces the first four heat associated deaths of the year.

More than a third of the 425 people who died from heat-associated causes in Maricopa County last year were homeless.

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, a former social worker, has been seeking new solutions to Arizona’s housing crisis.

She successfully pushed for $150 million to be included in Arizona’s Housing Trust Fund in the state’s recently approved budget to shore up rent and utility assistance programs, eviction prevention, and build new shelters and affordable housing.

Another $60 million was included in the state budget for a new homeless shelter and services fund to be overseen by the Arizona Department of Housing.