Here’s an inside look at living in Phoenix’s The Zone homeless encampment

Oct 27, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 6:11 am

PHOENIX – The scattered trash, needles and debris make for a harsh reality for the 400-plus people who call The Zone homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix home. A rapidly approaching deadline to leave the area isn’t helping.

Nette Reed, a social services navigator for the Human Services Campus, makes routine visits, as early as 4 a.m., to take the census count on how many unhoused individuals are on the street.

Reed and her colleagues conduct the count weekly while speaking to individuals about the possibility of temporary housing.

“I don’t even say anything about the SOS lots because my thing is … I want to see you get better, I want to see you do better, I don’t want to see you have to stay in a tent and feel like no one is there to support you, and that’s what I’m here for … if I can’t give you what you need, we’re going to find somebody who can…I promise you that,” Reed said.

The Zone is a multi-block homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix’s west side. At one point in May, it was home to 900 unhoused people. It has since decreased in size, with Human Services Campus estimates around 400 individuals that still live there as of mid-October.

The city of Phoenix agreed last week to its clean-up deadline on Nov. 4.

Phoenix City Council is in the works for a five-and-a-half-acre outdoor campground on 15th Avenue and Jefferson Street for residents who don’t want to go into temporary housing. Still, Reed would rather not see the same tents in a different location.

Maricopa Association of Governments Deputy Director Amy St. Peter told KTAR News 92.3 FM that cities see many people entering homelessness for the first time. From 2019 to 2023, homelessness had a 54% increase in the Maricopa County region, according to MAG.

“We have to have more housing available, that can be market-rate housing, apartment subsidized housing, we just need more housing,” St. Peter said.

For unhoused individuals who live in The Zone, it is constant survival. Nobody can trust anybody. Belongings are stolen frequently. Violence is an everyday act. Even giving out first and last names is risky, with some fearing getting in trouble with the law.

“Honestly, it’s a little mentally challenging. It’s emotionally frustrating sometimes,” an unhoused individual who went by two names, “Jessica” and “Star,” said.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go, we don’t know what opportunities they have for us, we don’t know what options they have for us, we know they bought a couple of hotels, but like I said before, there’s people in those hotels already…as were waiting for them to move out of there so that more people can move in there, the turnaround rate is not as fast as we thought it would be.”

As of Sept. 29, the Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), located directly inside The Zone on 12th Avenue, is overfilled with its 600-bed capacity, with 634 beds being used.

“Where are we supposed to go? Are we supposed to migrate to another part of Phoenix? Are there more shelters with more availability? Like, what do they plan on doing? And I don’t have anyone to ask these questions to…all I can do is stay hopeful and put my faith in God,” Jessica said.

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Here’s an inside look at living in Phoenix’s The Zone homeless encampment