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Phoenix is clearing people out of the city's biggest homeless encampment

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Phoenix has started clearing out its biggest homeless encampment. It's called The Zone, and about a thousand people have been living there. In March, a county judge said the city had to clear the camp after several downtown business owners sued. Kirsten Dorman with KJZZ has more.

KIRSTEN DORMAN, BYLINE: On a windy morning with gray clouds hanging overhead, about a dozen people move suitcases, wooden pallets and all kinds of belongings out of the tents and other self-made structures that line the sidewalk. And then the structures start coming down. Sarah Bass, who used to live in the zone, is watching.

SARAH BASS: It's like a third-world country right here - like, you know what I mean? - in the summertime.

DORMAN: The Zone sprang up around Phoenix's biggest homeless shelter and the neighboring Human Services Campus. Bass says both are overwhelmed.

BASS: That's why people originally started camping on the outside of it was because they were waiting their spot in line.

DORMAN: Nearby businesses filed a lawsuit against the city last August, saying the zone and its occupants hurt their businesses by presenting safety and health concerns. A Maricopa County judge ruled in their favor in March, ordering the city to disband the encampment by July 10. The question on everyone's minds now - where will those in The Zone go? A federal appeals court has ruled that cities can't remove homeless encampments unless they provide somewhere else for residents to go. Rachel Milne is the director of Phoenix's Office of Homeless Solutions.

RACHEL MILNE: Everything that we offer will definitely be voluntary. We're not forcing anyone to go anywhere.

DORMAN: Milne says the city is taking people to shelters and exploring creating a safe outdoor space for those who can't or don't want to go indoors.

MILNE: Moving forward, the big change is that folks will not be able to go back to the street once we've cleaned it.

DORMAN: Back on the street, Sarah Bass says the shelters people were being taken to yesterday won't be enough.

MILNE: There are only two places that they're offering to put them, which are two shelters, and those places are going to fill up fast. And then what?

DORMAN: Standing outside a barricade, former Zone resident Bonnie, who doesn't want to use her last name for safety reasons, wishes the community had more empathy.

BONNIE: Rather than turn your nose up to it, maybe try to help somebody.

DORMAN: Yesterday, the city only cleared out one of the several city blocks in The Zone. It plans to clear more but hasn't yet set a date.

For NPR News, I'm Kirsten Dorman in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirsten Dorman