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As heat threatens Phoenix's homeless, city is under pressure to move large encampment


The city of Phoenix is in court tomorrow after a judge there ruled it has to clear out its biggest homeless encampment. Last year, downtown businesses sued the city, saying the camp poses health and safety risks that keep customers away. Reporter Kirsten Dorman at member station KJZZ is following the case. Hey there.

KIRSTEN DORMAN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Thanks for being here. So the homeless - the camp in question is called The Zone, and I understand it's been around for quite a while.

DORMAN: That's right. And because it formed gradually over time, it's hard to say exactly how long The Zone has existed, but it's been years. It formed where it did because it's near a 13-acre human services campus where different organizations provide services for unhoused people, and at its largest, roughly a thousand people lived there. But since the city started moving people out, the most recent count I've seen is closer to between seven and eight hundred.

DETROW: So businesses challenged this camp. The courts sided with them. People are being moved out. But where are they going?

DORMAN: Yeah. So the city of Phoenix doesn't own or operate its own shelter, so because of that, right now, the director of the city's Office of Homeless Solutions says they're working with nonprofits and shelters to place people.

DETROW: Are there enough beds and spaces in the shelters that they're using?

DORMAN: Not quite. But I've been told that, so far, they've been able to place everyone who wants to go to a shelter in one. It's important to say that the city isn't moving everybody out of The Zone all at once. They're going block by block. So they've done three blocks since the beginning of May and, so far, have moved about 120 people. And they say they plan to clear two more blocks this month, which the city is also planning to open what it calls an outdoor structured camp by September 1.

DETROW: Can you tell us more about what an outdoor structured camp is?

DORMAN: Definitely. It's a place where people will be allowed to camp legally and safely. So the city will provide security, and it's going to be on a lot downtown owned by the state.

DETROW: So all of this is happening right now amidst a major heat wave in the Southwest. Phoenix is always hot in the summer, but climate change is certainly making it worse. It seems like it's been 100-plus degrees every day in the city recently.

DORMAN: In short, yeah, it's incredibly hot. And the city, like you mentioned, and much of the Southwest, is dealing with that heat wave this week. And here in Phoenix, it doesn't cool off at night. Last year, the - there was a record set for deaths from heat-related causes in Maricopa County, which is where Phoenix is, and 420 people died, many of them unsheltered. The city says the new legal camp they're setting up will have a steel shade structure, and they're going to put down turf and use an existing warehouse on site as air-conditioned space. But again, that's not supposed to open until September, and we've already seen temperatures here hit 115. And the National Weather Service is predicting an extended heat wave that could set new records. It's forecasting highs of at least 110 for the next week.

DETROW: OK, so that's September. What is being done now amidst this incredible heat?

DORMAN: Right. So Maricopa County is spending $3.8 million to do things like open more cooling centers. Outreach teams are being sent to places where people are living outside to distribute cold water, cooling towels, ice packs.

DETROW: So getting back to the original question, though, are people convinced that this new camp will solve the problems of the initial illegal one, The Zone?

DORMAN: Not everyone is. Phoenix's Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari voted against using the lot for it. She says it's because it's just a few blocks away, so it's not really providing relief to that original neighborhood where the camp is now.

DETROW: That's Kirsten...

DORMAN: But really, it's up for a judge to decide.

DETROW: Yeah. And that's Kirsten Dorman, reporter for KJZZ in Phoenix. Thanks so much.

DORMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirsten Dorman