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How Phoenix decides what's trash vs. property during controversial homeless camp sweeps

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Posted at 6:03 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-06 11:51:21-05

PHOENIX — All is quiet in "The Zone" just after 6 a.m. on a frosty February morning.

The Zone is what people call the homeless encampment near Phoenix's Human Services Campus at 12th Avenue and Madison Street.

Most of the residents are still sleeping as the sun comes up.

It's a respite from a typical Wednesday since the pandemic started and the three times a week of wake-up calls.

Police or behavioral health workers would go up and down the streets telling people to get moving by packing up their blankets, tents, and all their belongings.

Around 8 a.m., Phoenix's clean-up crews arrive with rakes, a loader, and a dump truck.

"What we call raids," said Faith Kearns, a woman who used to be homeless and now works as an organizer for the Fund for Empowerment.

The sanitation crews remove food wrappers, drug needles, urine, and feces. Other stuff is also trashed. ABC15 cameras captured a suitcase, a big pile of tarps and bags, mattresses, blankets, clothes, books, and cards being scooped up.

Many people on the streets say city workers trashed their personal belongings if they temporarily left camp due to being in jail overnight, being at work, receiving medical care, or even just getting something to eat.

"I've had everything I own thrown in the trash: my ID, my teeth," said Terry Reed who sleeps in the Zone. "It's kind of like they took the world away from you."

"They can't just willfully, like, seize and destroy people's personal property," said Elizabeth Venable, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness and the founder of the Fund for Empowerment. She said she collected written reports from about 50 people saying their items were seized and thrown away in violation of a federal case law.

"All of those things have been in violation of a ruling called Lavon v. city of Los Angeles," Venable said.

"There's a Los Angeles court case about whether or not belongings in public spaces should be thrown away or kept for a certain amount of time," explained Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus.

The U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating Phoenix's actions during the sweeps for constitutional violations under the 4th and 14th Amendments.

"We're going to look at the department and whether they violate the rights of people experiencing homelessness by unlawfully seizing or disposing of personal property during cleanings or sweeps of encampments," said Attorney General Merrick Garland during an August media briefing announcing the "policy or practice" investigation.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say the federal probe didn't change the sweeps.

In January, Phoenix activist Stacey Champion had a viral social media post when she was threatened with arrest for crossing a police line. At the time, she was intervening with the cleanup crews to try to protect a man's tent from disposal. She told officers the man was in the hospital.

Phoenix officials in charge of the cleanups make updates at city council meetings.

"We want to look out for the safety and health of everyone there," said Deputy City Manager Gina Montes. "Having people move is the way we get it truly clean."

City leaders denied ABC15's repeated requests for on-camera interviews. A spokeswoman answered questions by email, saying, "Most items left in the street after individuals have been given several hours warning to remove their items before sanitation crews arrive is deemed to be trash."

She wrote there are "special circumstances" where "sanitation crews will clean around areas when it is known the owner is unavailable or unable to move their belongings."

Champion showed us an example. It was a video of an elderly man with mobility issues this winter laying on a cot. He didn't have to move, but the sanitation worker power-washed underneath him, soaking his blanket.

"It's just cruel," Champion said.

ABC15 was in the Zone when people living in the encampments started to push back on January 14.

Cameron Robinson who lives on the corner of 11th Avenue and Jackson Street was an organizer. Dozens of people experiencing homelessness now offer to push their trash to the street, but refuse to pack up and drag all their belongings out of the way for cleaning.

"I just felt it in the air," Robinson said. "We just said we're not moving no more, and that's what sparked that."

In ABC15's three cleanup day visits since then, we've seen fewer officers. The occupied tents stay put and crews clean up what's unattended or pushed to the street.

"We're not against them," Robinson said. "We with them but they need to be with us, too."

A Phoenix City spokeswoman did not say there have been any official changes in sweep policy or practice, and Phoenix recently added metal signs in the Zone reinforcing clean-up days and times.

"Tomorrow they could walk up in here and tell us to move our tents," Reed said. "If we don't, they are going to throw it in the trash."

The Department of Justice did not respond to an email from ABC15 seeking comment.