Phoenix finishes clearing downtown homeless encampment after finding shelter for more than 500

FILE - Tents line the street of "The Zone," a homeless encampment, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Phoenix. The City of Phoenix said it has successfully cleared out a massive downtown homeless encampment by Saturday, Nov. 4, court ordered deadline by helping more than 500 people find beds in shelters and motels. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — The city of Phoenix has successfully cleared out a massive downtown homeless encampment by Saturday's court ordered deadline by helping more than 500 people find beds in shelters and motels.

The hundreds of tents that once lined blocks of streets in the area are now gone, with just a few people milling about or pushing shopping carts filled with their belongings.

“I was staying with a friend in a tent but he's now gone to a shelter,” said Lily Bitsui, 33, who looked a bit lost. Bitsui said she was not around when city workers were offering to help people find a place to stay inside.

“They've really cleaned up things, and there's a lot less crime around here now,” said Rudy Soliz, the operations director at the area's Justa Center, which provides daytime services for older homeless people, including meals and housing assistance. “I'm glad that a lot of those people have gone to shelters.”

Soliz said the move had also cut down on neighborhood crime.

The process of clearing the area began in the spring, with city workers focusing on a block at a time, offering the street dwellers a place to sleep indoors, including emergency shelters, temporary stays at motels and longer term transitional housing for older people.

After each of the 15 blocks was cleared, it was cleaned of debris and closed off to camping.

City officials say that over the course of several months, 718 people were offered help in finding shelter and 585 — about 80% — accepted placement. Phoenix also has now opened a a city parking lot that was recently rezoned to allow homeless people to pitch tents under safer, controlled circumstances.

A city statement said 21 people are now staying at the site, which will have portable restrooms and showers, meal service, property storage, security and a resident code of conduct. Drugs, alcohol and fires are prohibited and camping will not be allowed along the sides of the property.

The city was able to place so many people because 482 new temporary shelter beds have been added this year, including 362 in October. There are 600 beds at the city's largest emergency shelter nearby.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney in October denied city officials' request for an extension on cleaning up the encampment known as “The Zone,” and reiterated his order that they get the job done by Saturday. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30 to verify that Phoenix complied with the November deadline.

Like several other major cities, Phoenix has been challenged to balance the concerns of businesses and homeowners with the rights of homeless people. Business owners and residents near the encampment in Phoenix called it a public nuisance that subjected them to damage, litter and crime.

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

“While the City has met this court deadline, there is still work to be done,” the city said in a statement. “The goal remains to ensure that every person has access to safe housing and services while preserving quality of life in our neighborhoods for all residents.”