The street was home—for the holidays—as more than 1,000 Valley citizens reside in the “Zone” encampment

“The city is criminalizing me because I’m homeless—I’m a U.S. citizen, I work, I fought for my country”


Northeast Valley News

A few of the shelters in the “Zone” located in downtown Phoenix, where more than 1,000 Valley citizens call home

Preston Grace and Nicole White

Updated Jan. 18 

The number one myth about homeless residents of the Zone encampment in downtown Phoenix—“They don’t work—simply not true,” says local expert on the Valley homeless.

Elizabeth Venable is the League Organizer for the Fund for Empowerment, a non-profit outreach and education organization that works on behalf of the Valley’s homeless.

Ms. Venable is very familiar with homelessness.

She spends her days—week in and week out with those who call the street—home.

Venable is responsible for helping many of the homeless transition to jobs and gain education she is also the spokesperson for her organization and addresses political leaders and public safety officials—but Venable often feels as though no one is paying attention to what amounts to a human crisis on Valley streets.

“They (city leaders) don’t see these people as constituents, and they’re not donors,” Venable said.

Many of the residents in the downtown homeless encampment know Venable by her first name.

In fact, as Northeast Valley News was conducting an interview with her near the Zone encampment, a homeless resident spotted her and wanted to speak with her but respectfully stepped back and addressed Venable, “Sorry Elizabeth, I can wait, I don’t want to interrupt you”—the man patiently waited until the interview was concluded.

After Venable told Northeast Valley News that the number one myth about the homeless residing in the downtown Zone encampment was that they don’t work—she cited recent research done by the Andre House a faith based organization down the street from the Zone that has been serving the homeless for many years.

The study revealed that more than half of the community residing in the Zone work or receive monthly income checks of some kind. Many leave each day for jobs via public transportation or by foot or bicycle.

Phoenix rental costs have become so out of reach and many living in the Zone found themselves caught up in the perfect storm of COVID-19 joblessness and the unattainable cost of renting even a modest dwelling in a city that was once known for affordable housing.


Phoenix City Council has largely ignored Valley homelessness—except to push for the controversial and invasive “cleanup sweeps” of the Zone

When political leaders don’t see the homeless as constituents or donors—or a financial incentive to action—nothing gets done on their behalf. This was the recurring sentiment among the homeless and those who advocate for the unsheltered with regard to the inaction of city leaders.

“The truth is I had nowhere else to go,” said Zone resident Raquel Lopez who told Northeast Valley News that she has never been unemployed for more than a few weeks and is currently working in a local downtown factory.

“I was living in an apartment and lost my job after COVID hit, my rent went way up— my  one bedroom one bath apt. on Indian School increased to fourteen hundred dollars a month—all my income went to my apartment and I couldn’t do it —so here I am.”

Phoenix, like other large cities, do not make affordable housing a priority.

There are few, if any transitional residences to stay after a job loss or an extended medical illness.

For most who live paycheck to paycheck, the street is increasingly becoming the only option.

“I don’t think people understand that they could be out here too if hit with some bad times,” Lopez said.

Even though the Zone is located just a few blocks from the Phoenix City Council building downtown—the disconnect and distance from city leaders is stark.

When Northeast Valley News asked Venable about her efforts to address the homeless issues at the Zone as well as the CASS facility to city council members and other city services officials she said that there is little interest to aggressively address solutions or fund appropriate sanitation needs or provide adequate food service and attend to basic medical and safety issues at CASS.

According to Venable, the Phoenix City Council has consistently dropped the ball on placing Valley homelessness and affordable alternatives as a priority.

Only one city leader, Carlos Garcia, did tour the Zone and CASS facility on foot Venable told Northeast Valley News, but two other city council members simply observed the Zone from their vehicles.

“CASS is deplorable. There are only two public restrooms that are open and that’s only because we pressured the city for them,” Venable said.

A proper assessment by city leaders at the CASS facility would at least show leaders what was described to Northeast Valley News by residents of the Zone—appalling conditions that include raw sewage that is often backed up and unaddressed for days in scarce bathroom facilities.

The Phoenix City Council may be not be rushing to find solutions to Valley homelessness but leaders have continued to push for the intrusive cleanup sweeps that have been in place and manned by the Phoenix Police and other city service providers.

“The Phoenix Police can be awfully aggressive especially during the sweeps, they would throw away countless items belonging to the residents of the Zone. They also often use the Zone as a “dump” for others on the Phoenix streets,” Venable said.

The pandemic and the rise in housing costs in Phoenix, is in large part to blame. But homelessness is growing beyond Phoenix proper and is a crisis in cities across the nation. It’s not going to be remedied by ignoring it or criminalizing people who find themselves homeless—they deserve better.

The sweeps had been temporarily stopped during a U.S. Department of Justice investigation over the Phoenix Police handling of the cleaning intrusions coupled with organized resistance of the sweeps by residents and homeless advocates at the beginning of 2022. But the sweeps were slated to restart in December 2022—that is until an eleventh hour lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on Dec. 1. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the non-profit Fund for Empowerment as well as at least two homeless Zone residents that allege losing valuable property including medical records, personal identification papers and irreplaceable belongings during the forced sweeps.

Reportedly, new protocols were to be put into place to address some of the previous infractions as the city promised to introduce “enhanced” sweeps of the unsheltered—but Venable and other homeless advocates remain leery of the city’s plans.

None of the residents that spoke with Northeast Valley News were aware that the cleanups would be starting again.

At the time, according to Venable, her organization had not been notified when the sweeps would actually resume either.

But a few days after this initial interview, in late November, and a few days before it became known to homeless advocates that the sweeps would in fact begin again—a lawsuit was filed.

On Dec. 1 the ACLU lawsuit was filed alleging the cleanups violate the civil rights of Zone residents and requested a judge to prevent the city from the restart. The lawsuit names the city of Phoenix, former Phoenix Police Chief, Jeri Williams and the current Phoenix Police Chief Michael Sullivan as defendants.

Northeast Valley News reached out to the Phoenix City Council for comment, but as of publication, officials have not responded to our request.

In a Phoenix New Times report, Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix said the city, “cannot speak to the specific claims” of the suit but added that it is committed to serving all residents. And according to the report, added, “The city developed the Strategies to Address Homelessness [a report] and in the last fiscal year dedicated nearly $50 million dollars on solutions including shelters, increased affordable housing, and mental health services,” he wrote in an email to New Times. “In June 2022, the Phoenix City Council also approved $70.5 million in affordable housing and homelessness programs as part of the [American Rescue Plan Act] Second Tranche Strategic Plan.”

It will remain to be seen whether or not these proposals and funds are put into action on behalf of the Valley’s homeless.

ACLU attorney, Benjamin Rundell, said in the same Phoenix New Times report, “The destruction of property that occurs during these raids is really alarming.”

“And the fact that it is ongoing in other parts of the city, the fact that they are going to start up these sweeps in the Zone — I mean, it’s just something that isn’t tolerable,” Rundell said.

Since the lawsuit was filed, a district court judge ordered that sweeps could continue but on certain conditions.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow delivered an injunction ordering the city to stop seizing property without notice unless the property was part of a crime scene or a safety risk. The order also requires that property belonging to the homeless be stored for at least 30 days before destroying it. As important, the injunction also keeps city officials from ticketing people for camping in public unless they can prove that the homeless are refusing available shelter space.

Snow stopped short of not allowing the sweeps from resuming and the next day, Friday Dec. 16, the cleanups began bright and early—but this time under the watchful eye of homeless advocates and activists from the ACLU as well as other human rights and citizen organizations.

Individuals were on hand to report, record and monitor both the treatment of the homeless as well as their belongings during the city’s “enhanced” sweeps.

Still, Snow’s injunction is seen as a slight victory for Venable, the ACLU and other homeless advocates that demand respectful and reasonable management and supervision of the city sweeps.


Citizens harassed, ticketed and criminalized because they are homeless

City officials may call the sweeps “enhanced cleanups” but the homeless residents living in the Zone or on Valley streets call the sweeps and other measures pushed by the city— “criminalized harassment of U.S. citizens that are simply homeless.”

The large encampment near downtown Phoenix, unofficially dubbed as  the “Zone,” has grown to as many as 1,100 people this year.

The Zone is located along Madison, Jefferson, and Jackson streets from 9th to 15th avenue.

“I feel safe here,” says Zone resident Sean Williamson and another resident identified as Mr. Dunlap.

“Everybody knows me, and I know everybody else,” Williamson said. “We know each other’s boundaries, and we don’t cross them.”

“I feel safe, but it’s only because I took the time to get to know people. You have to invest yourself into the community, and build friendships. If you don’t, you’re just some stranger that’s showing up… It’s unsafe, until you get to know people.

Residents find that living in the Zone is a community of its own that comes with a particular set of rules and as long as people respect the unwritten policies—things are usually fine.

Williamson, along with some other Zone residents, were given the “opportunity” to stay in the Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) facility in downtown Phoenix, but each quickly described the intolerable experiences they had while staying there.

They told Northeast Valley News that they would prefer the Zone street encampment over staying at CASS.

“CASS doesn’t give us regular meals,” Williamson said. “All they do is put you up in a bed.”

Bill Lane, another resident of the Zone, says he “doesn’t feel safe” inside of the CASS facility at all.

“I have to sleep with my laptop computer on my head or it’ll get stolen,” Lane said. “If you leave your phone to charge overnight, they’ll steal it. Or if you take off your shoes, they steal them too… It seems like the security guards get pleasure taking what little we have. Every night, they come through and cut people’s locks and take their belongings, and throw them out.”

CASS doesn’t allow people to bring their own packaged food or snacks in with them.

“If you bring your own food in and put it in a drawer, they’ll cut your locks and take the food,” Lane said. “They don’t allow food in the dorms. I am diabetic, so I have to eat six meals a day. All they give me is one gallon bag of food (1 meal). How am I supposed to eat six times per day with that?”

Lane also described unsanitary conditions inside the CASS facility.

“They treat us like animals,” Lane said. “The toilets in the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. There’s no soap, no paper towels, and it stinks like hell.”

A 67-year old gentleman who lives in the encampment and sleeps under a small canvas shelter above his head wished to keep his name anonymous out of fear of being targeted by police or other authorities but wanted people to know how often he has been harassed for simply being a statistic of poverty.

“The city is criminalizing me because I’m homeless—I’m a U.S. citizen, I work, I fought for my country.”

Venable has been in the fight for the homeless for years and even though the enhanced sweeps promised by the city, so far, appear to be calmer and with less disruption to the homeless, they are also being heavily monitored after the ACLU lawsuit was filed. She seems fairly certain that without oversight—the harsh treatment of the homeless would return.

From her perspective, the need to address basic human dignity and provide appropriate facilities for the homeless is something that must continually be exhorted.

“Throughout the City of Phoenix and beyond the Zone, people are treated in ways that stop them from exiting homelessness. These include loss of documents, medicine, and other necessities as well as facing the effects of having a criminal record for simply being homeless. This lawsuit seeks to enjoin the City of Phoenix from conducting these dehumanizing and regressive acts,” Venable told Northeast Valley News.

Venable wants to remind the public that she works on behalf of human beings and citizens who are supposed to be afforded certain rights.

“The public can call for housing and decriminalizing homelessness,” Venable said.

She conveyed one final thought for a homeless individual that she had come to call a friend.

“I am proud of our team and our organizers, who are also plaintiffs. I am solemn however because of the loss of a plaintiff, Michael Felder, to heatstroke while on the city sidewalk. I carry Mike in my thoughts and reflect on his desire for justice for all people.”


Northeast Valley News contacted CASS for an interview prior to publication of this story and our organization did not receive any response from CASS regarding a request for an interview.

Since the publication of this story, a CASS representative wanted to make a statement with regard to the several reported, “deplorable” conditions that were collected by Northeast Valley News via interviews with individuals that stayed inside the CASS facility as well as a spokesperson from an organization that works on behalf of the Valley homeless and someone also familiar with the CASS facility.

Northeast Valley News stands by this report, we stand by the interviews conducted as well as our attempt to reach out to CASS.

In good faith, we are allowing a CASS representative to respond to the reported allegations and claims made by those interviewed. The CASS statement is posted here:


“Many of the comments in this article do not correctly represent CASS.  CASS services include shelter and case management, and we are on a 13-acre campus with partners that provide all the other services our clients need.  CASS is not a food supplier to our clients as that service is provided by other partners on the Human Services campus.  Additionally, CASS does not operate public bathrooms and all clients are provided with a private and lockable storage space to keep their belongings while they sleep.  CASS offers public tours regularly if anyone would like to learn more.  Details at”