Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Joe Faillace looked out the front windows of his sandwich shop this month and barely recognized the neighborhood where he has worked for almost 40 years. There were no tents within view, no emergency sirens, no campfires, no drug users slumped over on his patio or the sidewalk. Instead, he saw customers walking down quiet, clean streets toward his restaurant in time for a lunch rush that now doubles his average daily sales from early in the year.

“The difference over the last six months is something I never believed was even possible,” he said. “It’s an entirely new place. Every day feels like a miracle.”

The transformation is in fact the result of a fractious, litigious and arduous process that has consumed much of downtown Phoenix since Sept. 20, when a Maricopa County judge ordered the city to clear away its largest homeless encampment, a tent city of more than 1,000 residents known as The Zone. The judge ruled that the encampment had become a public nuisance, a place of “lawlessness and chaos” with such high rates of crime that it violated the rights of local businesses, and therefore needed to be removed within 45 days.

The city spent more than $30 million to open three homeless shelters in October and then worked with a team of local nonprofits to clean up The Zone block by block. Outreach workers offered temporary shelter to more than 700 people living in The Zone, and 585 eventually accepted help and chose to move indoors. The city also added 362 transitional beds for longer-term housing and turned a nearby parking lot into a sanctioned camping area with security and portable restrooms; a few dozen people now pitch their tents there.

In Phoenix, advocates for the homeless remain skeptical that the solutions will be enough to solve the crisis long term. Almost 10,000 people are homeless in Maricopa County, according to the last official count, a 70 percent increase since 2017, and the average rent continues to increase at three times the national rate. Already, some people who’ve dispersed from The Zone have begun congregating in tents and on sidewalks in other parts of downtown Phoenix.

“Our city staff and local nonprofits made a heroic push over the last few months to conduct outreach to our unsheltered neighbors, move them indoors and ultimately clear this area,” Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix said. “I want to emphasize that this does not mark the end of our work to address the nationwide homelessness crisis.”

The Phoenix police will continue to patrol The Zone each day to ensure that homeless campers don’t return, and local politicians and business owners have already begun meeting to discuss how the neighborhood can rebuild. “A lot of places have suffered some long lasting scars from all this, and that includes Old Station,” Joe said. His wife and longtime business partner, Debbie, decided to leave the restaurant in the spring and move to a house in Prescott, Ariz., a few hours’ drive away. Joe hopes to rebuild his customer base over the next several months, sell the restaurant to recoup his retirement money and join her in Prescott sometime next year.

“She couldn’t stand being down here anymore with all the bad memories,” Joe said. “This has always been our place, so it’s a whole new world doing it without her. It’s weird. It’s lonely. But at least now I’ve got customers.”

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