Arizona’s homeless could be targeted by police under Supreme Court ruling allowing bans on public encampments

Arizona’s homeless could be targeted by police under Supreme Court ruling allowing bans on public encampments

Arizona advocates worry what the new Supreme Court ruling means for local homeless populations. (File photo by Monserrat Apud/Cronkite News)

By Sahara Sajjadi

July 8, 2024

In June, the US Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the Phoenix Police Department after an investigation that lasted almost three years.

WASHINGTON – Advocates for homeless people in Arizona fear the Supreme Court has raised the risk of violence at the hands of police by upholding ordinances that criminalize sleeping in public places.

Phoenix made national headlines for months last year after a judge in Maricopa County ordered the city’s largest homeless encampment, The Zone, to be cleared. Downtown businesses had complained it posed a safety hazard.

Advocacy groups denounced the order. By November, the encampment was cleared, displacing hundreds of people.

In June, the US Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the Phoenix Police Department after an investigation that lasted almost three years. The report found that Phoenix police routinely violated the rights of homeless people by unlawfully detaining, citing and arresting them and unlawfully disposing of their belongings.

RELATED: Phoenix police have pattern of violating civil rights and using excessive force, Justice Dept. says

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling upheld a law from Oregon, effectively ratifying similar ordinances in Phoenix and other cities that ban sleeping outdoors or in encampments in public spaces.

Arizona advocates worry the ruling will have disastrous implications.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

Jared Keenan, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, expressed concern about the effect of the ruling on homeless people across the state.

“It’s harder to imagine a starker example of excessive punishment than fining, arresting and jailing people for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. And that is the situation here in Phoenix, where we do not have enough shelter space, affordable housing, long-term housing,” Keenan said. “The Supreme Court has given the green light to cities to criminalize existence when you’re unhoused.”

Arizona has long been under fire for its treatment of homeless populations. In Nov. 2022, the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit accusing Phoenix of punishing homeless people for sleeping outdoors and destroying their personal property without notice.

“Rather than using criminalization as one tool in their toolbox, as the city officials claim they needed to do, they’re using it as a primary tool,” Keenan said.

Criminalization of homelessness is “not only cruel but it’s also counterproductive,” he said. Like other advocates, he pointed to expansion of affordable housing and social services as ways to address the root causes of homelessness

“Criminalization doesn’t end anybody’s homelessness. The way to resolve homelessness for people is to provide housing and the supportive services that people want and need,” said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We need investments at the federal level to address the affordable housing crisis and shortage that is impacting not just Arizona” but communities across the country, she said. “It’s not going to get resolved without some significant investments.”

The number of people without permanent shelter spiked 29% in Arizona from 2020 and 2023, according to the state’s Department of Economic Security. In the last five years, unsheltered homelessness has increased by almost 73%, according to DES.

More than a third of all arrests in Phoenix from 2016 to 2022 were of people experiencing homelessness, according to the DOJ report. Many of these stops, citations, and arrests were considered unconstitutional by the Justice Department.

The day of the Supreme Court ruling, the city of Phoenix issued a statement saying it has sought to “address encampments in a dignified and compassionate manner,” with a goal of ending homelessness while “preserving the quality of life in our neighborhoods for all residents.”

Additionally, “the city will continue to lead with services and will not criminalize homelessness,” said the statement, provided by the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

In December 2022, a federal judge in Arizona ordered Phoenix to halt the enforcement of camping bans, seizing property without notice and destroying property without an opportunity to collect it.

Last October, the court modified the order to align with a ruling from the liberal 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals – which also handles cases from Arizona – involving an ordinance in Grants Pass, Oregon.

The 9th Circuit held that it was unconstitutional for cities to target homeless people. Grants Pass had made it unlawful to use cardboard boxes, pillows or blankets while sleeping in public. It was that ruling the Supreme Court overturned on June 28, in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson.

According to the Justice Department report, Phoenix police repeatedly violated or ignored the 2022 and 2023 court order, and had not properly trained officers on “how to follow the law, nor supervise them to ensure they did.”

While the seizure of personal property improved in “highly visible areas,” sweeps in other areas failed to meet constitutional standards, the report said.

In one example, officers arrested seven people who were sitting and sleeping on a public sidewalk, and accused them of trespassing. The DOJ called the arrests illegal.

Officers left their belongings on the sidewalk despite their pleas.

“Please. All my stuff is here. Everything. Please,” one woman said, according to the DOJ, to which the officer replied, “This is all junk. There’s nothing.”

The DOJ documented numerous cases of police discarding personal belongings as they rousted homeless people. One man lost the urn containing ashes of a relative. Countless others reported the loss of items the DOJ said they needed for survival, such as clothing, tents, medicine and personal identification, including Social Security cards.

A homeless woman lost her birth certificate when the city threw away her tent, which “made it impossible to get housing,” according to the report.

In one instance, officers said, “You guys are trash, and this is trash,” while discarding the personal property of a homeless man.

Arizona is one of the fastest growing states. A shortage of affordable housing has exacerbated its homeless crisis, overwhelming sheltering capacity in Phoenix despite the city investing $140 million in shelters and other homeless services, according to the DOJ.

“The city tends to see unhoused communities as a problem rather than as humans. It’s much easier to try to disappear people through incarceration than it is to address the homelessness crisis,” said Ben Laughlin, policy and research coordinator at Poder in Action, a civil rights advocacy organization.

While the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of encampment bans, advocates are hoping for policies that take a longer-term approach than policing.

But, said Keenan, “We fear that the city’s going to double down on efforts at criminalizing people who are unhoused.”


  • Sahara Sajjadi

    Sahara Sajjadi expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Sajjadi has worked as a graduate assistant at The Reynolds Center, writing about topics pertaining to the business world. She is also a recipient of the White House Correspondents Association scholarship award.

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