A homeless encampment in Phoenix near the state’s largest shelter has ballooned to more than 900 people, making it one of the country’s largest tent cities.
The sprawling encampment, which spans several blocks near the city’s downtown, has dramatically increased from the more than 400 people living there when VICE News visited in January 2020, according to homeless services officials. In a city that can reach temperatures of over 100 degrees in the summer months, side-by-side camping tents now cram the sidewalks, some just steps away from a shelter that’s been at capacity for months. The shelter, part of the 13-acre Human Services Campus, is situated near a host of other services that provide food, legal services, medical care, and more to the poor.
The camp more than doubling in size over two years may be a testament to how bad Phoenix’s housing crisis has become.
“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”
Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic.
“Then you put the pandemic and all of the economic changes on top of that,” Schwabenlender said. “It’s incredibly sad, but it’s not terribly surprising that we find ourselves in this situation.”
What is surprising, however, is the rate at which the encampment has grown. Outreach workers, who count the number of people living there each week, saw a population in the 200s last summer, according to Schwabenlender. While the scorching-hot temperatures in Phoenix seem to drive people out of town in summer, toward the end of the year, as the weather cooled, the population climbed over 500.
“Then it was up over 700. And now, three weeks in a row, it’s over 900 unsheltered people, while we’re also sheltering more people than we ever have before,” Schwabenlender said. “There are more unsheltered people than sheltered people now in our immediate area, and that total number—as far as I can recall from my 16, 17 years doing this work—is the highest ever.”
The large shelter on campus, Central Arizona Shelter Services, houses an astonishing 520 people. Fifty of them were sleeping on mats on the floor Friday, because all of the 470 beds were full, according to the shelter’s CEO Lisa Glow. Within the next year, Central Arizona Shelter Services plans to add another 300 beds.
“With rising rents and lack of affordable housing—which was a crisis a few years ago and still is—we’re going to continue to see rises in homelessness,” Glow said.
It’s not clear how everyone living at the downtown Phoenix encampment got there. But data is expected to show a rise in first-time homelessness in Maricopa County over the pandemic, according to Glow. More people becoming homeless for the first time could be indicative of greater housing affordability issues in the county, rather than showing that the same people are cycling in and out of shelters and camps.
The last time the population was counted in 2020, volunteers found 7,419 homeless people in Maricopa County on a single day in January, a 12% increase from the year prior. The count didn’t happen in 2021 due to the pandemic, and data from the 2022 count has not yet been released.
Phoenix having both a glittering housing market and gargantuan tent city is hardly unique, but few encampments have ever grown quite as large as the one around the Human Services Campus. A tent city dubbed “the Jungle” in Seattle had an estimated population of 400 at one point. Another encampment called “the Jungle” along Coyote Creek in San Jose had 200 to 300 residents until the city shut it down in 2014.
Skid Row probably comes the closest in size, although it’s far larger. Approximately 5,000 homeless people—about half of whom are unsheltered—live in the entrenched community in Los Angeles. Similar to the Phoenix encampment, many of Los Angeles’ services for the homeless are also based around that neighborhood, which may be the draw for some people who have nowhere else to go.
"The City of Phoenix is working to address homelessness around the Human Services Campus as well as throughout the entire city,” Kristin Couturier, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix, told VICE News in a lengthy statement.
She also explained that the city has dedicated nearly $50 million to solutions to the problem this fiscal year. Almost $28 million of that is earmarked for shelters, including new beds at Central Arizona Shelter Services and a separate “sprung structure” that will have 100 beds and extra restrooms on the Human Services Campus.
The city also emphasized funding for shelters to help families, veterans, seniors, and others as well as outreach, mental health services, rapid rehousing, and more. Additionally, Phoenix has disbursed federal dollars for eviction prevention and set goals for creating or preserving affordable housing, among other initiatives.
A package of housing and homelessness bills is also currently winding its way through the state Legislature, including Senate Bill 1581, which would give municipalities and cities $50 million for structured camps and tiny home sites, as well as street outreach.
That bill—which, like other proposals in Texas, Georgia, and Wisconsin, is backed by the Cicero Institute, a think tank linked to a co-creator of Palantir—has caught the ire of some advocates. They’re frustrated, in part, that the bill is focused on temporary solutions rather than permanent housing..
The Cicero Institute has also been criticized for pushing bills that advocates said criminalized homelessness in states like Texas, where tent camping was banned in public places last year. The Arizona proposal would require cities that accept funding to enforce anti-camping laws, pushing people into the sanctioned camps.
But Glow said the bill could be life-saving.
“From where I sit, we need the resources yesterday to do this,” she said. “We want housing, too. You can’t build housing fast enough. We had nearly 600 people die in the streets in Maricopa County last year. Do we take action to help those people now, or do we wait for the housing to be built over the next two years?”
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