Hotels and Parking Lots: How Phoenix is Handling Homelessness During a Pandemic


By Camaron Stevenson

May 25, 2020

There’s a new housing development in downtown Phoenix, but this time, it’s not an expensive high-rise.

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Downtown’s latest living space isn’t high-end condos or luxury apartments – it’s an encampment space for Phoenicians experiencing homelessness. But some of its residents aren’t happy with their new living arrangement.

Phoenix has joined several other cities around the country in authorizing homeless tent encampments in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“One day we wake up and the barriers are up. The next day we wake up, the fences are up,” said Mick Conway, who now stays in the new encampments. “The next day they put the green fabric up. And then one day they lock the doors.”

This is something Phoenix leaders have resisted for years, but as health concerns collide with housing concerns, they’re left with limited options for safeguarding people experiencing homelessness. 

Kelly Cutler, a human rights organizer working with the Coalition on Homelessness, says the coronavirus pandemic has brought light to a problem that cities have been facing for years, and is only getting worse.

“Homelessness is a lot more visible now. Part of the reason is because the city hasn’t been going through and taking people’s tents,” Cutler said. “They were all squeezed together just along the strip there. And so this allowed for them to separate. So instead of being on top of each other, they were able to get distancing between the tents.”

RELATED: Coronavirus Is Exposing Why the Affordable Housing Crisis Is Also a Healthcare Crisis

Before opening the doors to city-sanctioned encampments, the Phoenix City Council approved $1 million dollars to be used to rent 95 hotel rooms. The rooms will be used by elderly Phoenicians experiencing homelessness, and who will be able to live there for one year.

The arrangement is a win-win for those in need, the city, and hotel owners, who have seen a significant drop in room rentals since the pandemic began.

But there aren’t enough rooms for everyone, which is why tent encampments have now been set up and monitored by the city. But like Mick, a good number of the folks living in the encampments aren’t on board. 

RELATED: Hospitals Often Send Homeless Patients Back Onto Streets. This Project Aims to Stop That.

Nathan Rice is another resident who feels the encampments are the wrong solution. And when you look at it from his perspective, where some of his friends are given nice hotel rooms – complete with health check, food delivery, and air conditioning – living in a tent in a parking lot under the hot Arizona sun sounds less than ideal.

“We’re still on the street. You know? That’s still the street. We’re still on the sidewalk in a tent,” Rice said. “If there was somebody sick, we’d spread it to one another. So, I mean, we need walls protecting us.”

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  • Camaron Stevenson

    Camaron is the Founding Editor and Chief Political Correspondent for The Copper Courier, and has worked as a journalist in Phoenix for over a decade. He also teaches multimedia journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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