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Maricopa County Moved Homeless People to Sweltering Parking Lots in Response to COVID-19

Hundreds were forced from an encampment to fenced-in, asphalt parking lots with no shade in Phoenix’s triple-digit summer heat. At least three people have died.

The county-owned vacant lot where people experiencing homelessness have been moved to.Photo by Meg O’Connor

There are usually hundreds of tents sprawled out in an industrial zone southwest of downtown Phoenix. For years, roughly 500 people experiencing homelessness have camped out there on the streets surrounding Arizona’s biggest homeless shelter, Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), though the shelter doesn’t have any room for them.

Since April, roughly 200 of those people and their tents have instead been fenced in on black asphalt lots near the encampment as part of Maricopa County’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Although Phoenix has managed to avoid a major outbreak among its homeless population so far, many of the steps taken by the city and by the county since the pandemic began have been questioned. The decision to corral people into the lots is perhaps the government’s most controversial choice. 

Elishyah McKinley was forced onto the lot a few months ago. Last year, McKinley was close to finding housing, she told The Appeal. But then police came to the encampment near CASS, as they regularly do, and started throwing away people’s belongings. McKinley said police threw away a cart of hers that contained her birth certificate, IDs, a ring that was sentimental to her, and house-warming gifts from her daughter.

Without her birth certificate and IDs, McKinley’s housing plans fell through.

“When I did have my house, I had it broken into, and that’s what that seemed like again to me,” McKinley told The Appeal. “Like they just took my things and robbed me. It was devastating. It was just like they didn’t care. They said if you touch anything on that cart I’m going to lock you up.”

So she remained at the encampment at 12th Avenue and Madison Street—until police told her they would cite her if she did not move to a parking lot, McKinley said.

Maricopa County opened the lots two blocks away from the main encampment on April 29. They were supposed to be optional, but people like McKinley say police forced them onto the lots. And though the lots have been deemed temporary by the county, the city has installed permanent fixtures in the encampment people were pushed out of, preventing many of them from returning to the same spot.

The fenced-in lots have portable restrooms, handwashing stations, and around-the-clock security, but provide no shade or cooling. The black asphalt of the lot intensifies Phoenix’s relentless and deadly heat, which killed a record 197 people in Maricopa County last year. At least three people experiencing homelessness have died on the county-owned lots so far.

The county-owned vacant lot where people experiencing homelessness have been moved to. Photo by Meg O’Connor

“It is absolutely inhumane to me that we have accepted that that is even an OK option right now in 120 degree weather,” Ash Uss, advocacy and recruiting coordinator for André House, a nonprofit that offers services to homeless people, told The Appeal. “There is a major human and moral issue going on if we believe that this is an acceptable solution.”

Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus, an umbrella organization that provides services for homeless Phoenix residents, said she and other advocates have tried to get the county to erect shaded areas and provide air conditioned tents. The best people can do right now to beat the heat is take a 15-minute bus ride to the Phoenix Convention Center, which has been opened to provide meals and air conditioning during the day for people experiencing homelessness. 

Usually, people would be able to seek relief from the heat in the buildings that make up the Human Services Campus, where CASS is located. But the number of people allowed inside has been limited in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. During the day, for instance, only 40 people at a time can seek heat relief in a campus dining room run by a local branch of the charitable organization Society of St. Vincent de Paul. 

Still, at night, hundreds of unsheltered people must continue to endure the heat. Phoenix’s urban heat island effect keeps temperatures high even when the sun goes down, since heat radiates from dark asphalt surfaces, which retain the heat absorbed during the day. Though the county just opened a vacant court building downtown and will allow up to 130 people to sleep there at night until Sept. 30, it’s not enough beds to accommodate everyone sleeping outside.

Bruce Liggett, Maricopa County’s director of human services, told The Appeal that cooling fans and shade canopies are available at the Human Services Campus. 

Those provisions are several blocks away from the lots.  

Liggett also pointed to the county and the city’s efforts to provide daytime heat relief at the convention center and nighttime relief at the vacant court building.

“Tents in a parking lot is not shelter,” Schwabenlender told The Appeal. “It’s still sad and disappointing that we haven’t found a way in COVID times to bring everybody inside. There’s still about 100 tents that aren’t in those parking lots.”

“I was there when they told everyone they had to go,” McKinley said, referring to the day when the lots opened and people at the encampment were instructed to disperse. “I didn’t wanna go there, but [a police officer] said if you’re here in the morning we’re gonna give you a ticket. So I moved.”

Phoenix police have a long history of using the threat of citation to force people out of the encampment and other areas across the city. Yet in December, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that states that police cannot criminally cite people for sleeping outdoors when there are no shelter beds available. 

In January, local advocates sent a letter to the mayor and the City Council urging them to stop criminalizing homelessness. But even in April—more than a month after the pandemic took hold in Arizona—police forced people at the encampment on Madison to break down their tents. 

Michael Feldman, a 59-year-old man staying at the encampment on 12th and Madison, told The Appeal he’s seen Phoenix police officers force people out. 

“When they opened up those concentration camps,” Feldman said, gesturing to the lots on Ninth and Madison, “the police could threaten to arrest or cite people again because there was room at the lots.”

Police and street cleaners still sweep the area every week. Advocates and people who live in the encampment say that sometimes people are told to break down their tents or leave the area, but at other times are left alone. On July 15, police officers remained in their vehicles while city employees in hazmat suits collected trash, allowing the residents of the encampment to remain where they were.

“We have been working with individuals experiencing homelessness in getting them into locations where they can have access to handwashing stations and toilets,” Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, said in an email to The Appeal. “We are also trying to help them follow the physical distancing recommendation. … I am not aware of any citations related to not leaving other locations. We lead with service and citations are issued if there is any other criminal or traffic-related activity present.”

Phoenix police and city employees at the encampment during a Wednesday cleanup. Photo by Meg O’Connor

The parking lots have been referred to as a temporary tent space. But a few weeks after they opened, the city installed permanent poles and chains on the easements of the main encampment at 12th and Madison, which means when the lots close, the number of people who can stay at the main encampment will have been drastically cut back.

The decision to install those fixtures “felt heartless,” Uss said, and flew in the face of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance not to break up encampments during the pandemic. 

“Right as the pandemic was happening we had the city of Phoenix spending resources to install chains and poles,” Uss said. “Once those lots were full, the people who didn’t get into those lots or didn’t want to go in had to move from where they were camping on the easements, and I don’t know where they are now. They were certainly displaced.”

The city has also sought to spend $21,500 in federal COVID-19 relief money to cover the cost of putting up gates intended to keep homeless residents out of alleys near the encampment. 

In late June, Phoenix issued a comprehensive plan to address homelessness. While the plan contains plenty of ambitious goals to address gaps in services, improve access to mental health care, and create more affordable housing and shelter space, the plan also contains a few proposals that would further criminalize homelessness, like removing bus benches and replacing them with chairs and forcing people to stop camping along the Grand Canal.

Asked about the poles and chains, Tamra Ingersoll, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix’s human services department said in an email: “These easements have been secured to help safeguard the health and welfare of our community during this pandemic. Based on the recommendations from the CDC and Maricopa County Health officials on keeping the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we have been working with individuals experiencing homelessness to assist them in finding shelter in locations where they can have access to much needed sanitization handwashing stations and toilets.”

The lots were set up with painted 12-by-12-foot boxes intended to promote social distancing, but the tents now appear to be packed more closely together. On July 8, a fire broke out at one of the lots and burned three tents. On July 16, The Appeal spoke with two security guards at one of the two smaller lots; neither were wearing masks.

“Distancing and masks are being promoted and encouraged,” Liggett, the county’s human services director, said in an email when asked if there was room for social distancing at the lots. “The overall goal for the County and other funders is to place as many people as possible into housing. In addition to moving people in shelters into housing, individuals in the lots are being accepted into shelter as shelter capacity allows. Some of these individuals could also be placed into housing.”

Maricopa County’s homeless population has been steadily increasing in recent years and stands at over 7,400 people, according to the county’s most recent figures. More than 3,700 of those people are unsheltered. The county’s shelters have had to reduce capacity to allow for distancing, further straining advocates’ ability to provide shelter and protect people from the heat.

In an effort to get more people into shelter, the Human Services Campus put in a request to change its zoning permit. The change would allow them to add about 500 more beds. But the proposal is facing pushback from businesses and homeowners in the neighborhood, and it will be months before the plan goes before the City Council for approval.

Phoenix and the county have put money aside to rent about 150 hotel rooms for homeless residents, though most are reserved for people already infected with COVID-19 or seniors, who are at a higher risk of contracting the virus. 

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy, causing businesses to close and a record number of people to file for unemployment, providers fear a new wave of homelessness may be on the horizon. Phoenix already had an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic. If Arizonans lose their $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, the most they could get per week from the state is $240. Arizona has been slow to distribute rental aid; whenever Governor Doug Ducey allows the state’s temporary eviction moratorium to expire, thousands of Arizonans may lose their homes.

“There’s nowhere for people to go,” said Schwabenlender. “If they tell them they can’t be on that street, they’ll go into a park or another neighborhood. Until we can shelter and house everybody, we need to figure out how to allow people to be where they are while we work on the creation of long-term housing units.”