About 30 demonstrators gathered at Margaret T. Hance Park Wednesday in downtown Phoenix to urge city leaders to adopt legislation to decriminalize urban camping.
Demonstrators organized by advocacy group Fund for Empowerment marched down Central Avenue and back toward the park, chanting and carrying signs that read “Mayor Kate Gallego, follow the law,” “Camping is a human right,” and “Follow the Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit.”
A 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals banned cities from arresting or imposing fines on people sleeping in public places in the absence of meaningful housing alternatives.
As a result, local governments in western states have begun to reassess their urban camping ordinances. Among them are cities in Arizona like Glendale and Tempe, which have stopped enforcing urban camping laws.
But little has changed in Phoenix, said Elizabeth Venable, treasurer for the Fund for Empowerment.
Despite the court decision, the Phoenix Police Department is “doing the same thing they’ve always done,” said Venable.
‘Everything was taken from me’ by the police
Elisheyah Riley, 60, was among the group of protesters, and said in the two years she’s been homeless, police have cited her multiple times for camping-related offenses and recently confiscated her possessions.
Four months ago, while Riley was living near the Human Services Campus downtown, police came by and began hauling away bags of her things, including her birth certificate, identification card and sentimental jewelry, she said.
“They just start coming around just taking the items,” Riley said. “Everything was taken from me … that feels like they broke into my house.”
Riley is currently living with friends, but will need to relocate by the end of the month. Her lack of identification makes finding work and housing difficult.
Homeless advocates like Venable say measures that punish people for sleeping on the street are counterproductive, perpetuating the cycle of homelessness. In extreme cases, people wind up with felony records for camping-related offenses, she said.
“Obviously, it makes it very difficult to obtain housing. It makes it very difficult to get a job and it exacerbates homelessness,” said Venable.
‘What are people supposed to do?’
Activists have criticized the city’s urban camping laws since there are not enough beds in local shelters to accommodate Maricopa County’s growing homeless population, which has ballooned to more than 6,500 people on any given night, according to 2019 estimates.
Almost half of homeless people living in Maricopa County are unsheltered, and many have limited options, said Venable Those with felony records are particularly vulnerable.
“Most shelters will not take all people,” said Venable. “What are people completely excluded from housing supposed to do?”
Phoenix Police refuted claims that officers criminalize people for being homeless.
“Officers approach each situation with an understanding that homelessness is not a crime,” Phoenix PD spokesperson Mercedes Fortune said in an email. She said that citations and arrests of homeless people are usually the result of “additional criminal activity.”
“The Phoenix Police Department leads with service when we encounter individuals who are living, sleeping or camping on public property,” Fortune said. “We make every attempt to connect the person with social services through the Phoenix C.A.R.E.S program, Community Bridges or other service providers.”
On Dec. 18, Venable delivered a petition to the Phoenix City Council challenging the city’s urban camping ordinances.
“Since the 9th Circuit of Appeals ruled in September 2018 on the case Martin v. Boise, the leaders of the City of Phoenix have been intractable in their support for the criminalization of camping and sleeping in public areas,” Venable told the city council.
Venebale said she thinks the City of Phoenix has been slow to move on the issue of urban camping, anticipating the decision will be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the Boise case, allowing the 9th Circuit ruling to stand.
“Phoenix has no more excuses,” Venable told the council in December. “You must stop criminalizing sleeping and camping.”
After Venable submitted the petition, Councilman Sal DiCiccio suggested the council have a meeting on this issue.
“I’m glad (Venable) brought it up, quite frankly,” DiCiccio said.
On Wednesday, another letter was delivered to the Phoenix City Council, this time with signatures from a coalition of advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, The Poor People’s Campaign, the National Lawyers Guild, Poder in Action and others.
“We are writing to urge the City of Phoenix … to change its policies and practices surrounding police interaction with people who are experiencing homelessness,” the letter stated.
No decision was made on Wednesday, and the petition is to be sent to the Land Use and Livability Subcommittee for consideration.
Paying the help forward
Many homeless people in the city feel they must rely on each other for survival.
James Wooden, 38, didn’t know a protest was happening at Hance park, but showed up anyway when he heard that Venable, a friend of his, was going to be there.
Wooden has a long beard and the face of a much younger man. He was homeless for about six months, sleeping around the fountains near Phoenix City Hall, before a friend of his invited him to stay at her place.
That’s how he eventually got back on his feet, Wooden said.
Now, he has a place of his own, but he hasn’t forgotten the people he knew during his time sleeping on the streets. Two of them are staying at his apartment now.
“Somebody got me,” Wooden said. “And I came and got them.”