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Judge dismisses lawsuit asking Tucson to clear homeless camp

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A Pima County judge has dismissed a lawsuit asking the city of Tucson to take steps to pay out for a homeless encampment that residents say was a public nuisance.

The lawsuit was filed by the same attorneys who successfully sued the city of Phoenix over “The Zone,” a downtown homeless encampment that stretched along Jackson Street between 9th and 11th Avenues. But unlike the Phoenix lawsuit, which resulted in court orders requiring the eviction of the encampment, a judge will not order the eviction of a fast-growing encampment in Navajo Wash Park.

Now the group of residents wants to appeal the case to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Superior Court Judge Greg Sakall issued a final ruling in favor of the city on May 24, 2024 after three residents, some of whom are part of the Hedrick Acres Neighborhood Association, filed a lawsuit. The group, represented by Phoenix-based law firm Tully Bailey LLP, said in the lawsuit that Navajo Wash is home to several unsheltered residents who are setting up semi-permanent structures.

The lawsuit from residents Allison Bradford, Michael Carlson and Adrian Wurr asked the court to issue an order banning camping and requiring the city to keep Navajo Wash free of drug paraphernalia and feces.

The residents argued that the conditions at Navajo Wash create a public nuisance, making Tucson liable.

“The city has taken active steps to contribute to the fight against the nuisance,” said Ilan Wurman, one of the plaintiffs, referring to the services that nonprofit partners and the city provide to the homeless. The group also said the city’s three-tier camp protocol process contributed to the disruption.

The city initiates its protocol when a homeless encampment poses a threat to public safety, a major criminal or health problem, or when camping occurs in a city park after hours. Level 1 camps are camps that no longer have residents and need to be cleared. Level 2 defines encampments where residents can govern themselves and keep the area free of disruptive activities. For Tier 2 camps, the city provides cleanup services, outreach and monitoring. Level 3 represents disruptive encampments with many problems, which will prompt the city to provide assistance and remove the encampment.

Residents in court documents detail a buildup of trash, resident-set fires that have gone out of control on at least two occasions, and an increase in criminal activity such as mail theft, smash and grab car thefts and theft from homes. and companies in the area.

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Phoenix clears the 14th block of ‘The Zone’

Phoenix cleared the fourteenth block of “The Zone” homeless encampment on October 30, 2023, on 11th Avenue from Madison to Jackson streets.

Republic of Arizona

Wurr, whose property is near the wash, said he smelled smoke from the fires and was attacked by a person camping in the wash, while Carlson suffered damage to his business from people in the camp.

During the lawsuit, the city said the conditions do not constitute a public nuisance and noted the steps it is taking to mitigate activities at the car wash. The city claimed in its opening statements that the plaintiff’s issue is related to city policy.

“The plaintiffs’ own testimony will show that this is about taking the reins of city policy and directing it so that they don’t have to watch the suffering of others from the comfort of their homes or businesses,” Bern said Velasco, an attorney with Mesch Clark Rothschild who represented the city.

Tucson case ‘distinguishable’ from ‘The Zone’ in Phoenix, judge says

Sakall, the judge, wrote that the Tucson case was different from the Phoenix case. According to Sakall, the City of Phoenix created and perpetuated a nuisance in The Zone when it stopped enforcing criminal justice and quality of life laws in the area, transported homeless people to The Zone, and only cleaned up the area when she was forced to do so.

“In contrast, there is no credible evidence in this case that the city of Tucson failed to respond to complaints at the Navajo Wash,” Sakall wrote in his ruling.

Sakall highlighted Tucson’s actions to address the problems, including regularly cleaning up the car wash and responding to all but one of Wurr and his wife’s 911 calls about illegal activity or emergencies at the car wash.

In the lead-up to the lawsuit, the leadership of the Hedrick Acres Neighborhood Association admitted to removing more than 75 trees in Navajo Wash in 2023. The organization’s January newsletter describes the removal as “cleaning up” to return the wash to its primary use as a waterway. , and secondarily as a “landscaped pocket park.” According to a Ward 3 newsletter published on September 15, the removal had not been approved.

Lawsuit highlights challenges facing homeless people in Tucson

Around the time of the trial in March, community groups that provide food to the homeless were having a harder time operating. The difficulty stemmed from the enforcement of Ordinance 21-4b, which requires groups to obtain a permit to distribute food, beverages or other items on public property if the event attracts ten or more people.

Community on Wheels, a group that distributes food, hygiene products, clothing and first aid to homeless people in Santa Rita Park every week, said they and other groups were threatened with tickets or told not to distribute supplies. The Santa Rita event typically draws between 40 and 80 people per week, said Xavier Martinez, a member of Community of Wheels.

Since the organization was formed four years ago, Martinez said government officials had told the group that the ordinance, although in fact, was never enforced because of the need and the supplies the groups provided.

Andrew Squire, a spokesman for the city, said the ordinance has always been enforced, but the city does not have staff to actively “police” this type of activity.

The Tucson Parks and Recreation Department, which issues the permits, said the permitting process allows the city to distribute the resources throughout the city.

“With the tremendous need for food elsewhere in the city, it seemed sensible to try to have groups provide services to locations in the community where there were no meal options,” Greg Jackson, the department’s deputy director, said in an email. The department is working with the city’s outreach team to identify hotspots for unhoused people and see if there is a park nearby that would be better suited for service providers to provide meals.

The department said the permits allow the city to host events in parks with appropriate facilities.

“If a group is attracting people to a park for services, we believe it is important that that park has the amenities to support the event, such as restrooms. So we would not allow a request in a park that does not have restrooms,” said Jackson.

Additionally, the department communicates with each district office when a permit is issued so that the department can listen to any concerns about activities in the park. By managing the permits, the department can also follow up on groups that have not cleaned up after their event.

In more recent weeks, Martinez said the groups are not being targeted to distribute goods to those in need. But he and others are asking the council to repeal the ordinance.

“That way, people don’t have to feel anxious or hesitant about the work needed to keep our people surviving just a little bit longer until the resources they need are implemented citywide,” Martinez said.

Reach the reporter [email protected]. The Republic’s reporting on southern Arizona is funded in part by a grant from Report for America. Support news reporting in Arizona with a tax-deductible donation at supportjournalism.azcentral.com.