Tempe's clearing of homeless camps has ripple effects for Phoenix, aid workers, and Seniors
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Tempe's clearing of homeless camps has ripple effects for Phoenix, aid workers, and Seniors

Contributing Writer: John Skelton of Tempe Community Action Agency and Senior Helpers of Tempe

For three and a half years, Mary (77) and Jeffrey (79) Yahner called the “River Bottom” home.

The massive encampment stretched across 70 acres of Tempe’s Rio Salado riverbed and was a refuge for somewhere between 75 and 200 unhoused people, according to estimates from the city and local advocacy groups. It was a precarious place to live, prone to flooding and human-caused fires, and a hotspot for emergency calls. But to the people who lived there, it was a community.

That was until August 31, when city officials shut down the encampment, citing health and safety concerns and pledging to offer services like shelter and healthcare.

But after being forced to move, the Yahners didn't get housing and didn't feel safer. The couple described being routinely pushed out of public spaces by Tempe police in the months following the clearing of the River Bottom, bouncing from place to place as they tried to stay out of sight.

More than a dozen people who used to live in the River Bottom and five outreach workers and volunteers told The Arizona Republic that since the encampment was cleared, Tempe police have been uprooting unhoused people throughout the city, prompting many to leave Tempe and relocate elsewhere.

Clearing out encampments through “sweeps” or “cleanups” is a common tactic throughout the U.S. as cities are under increasing pressure to address street homelessness.

Local governments must juggle the needs of their homeless populations with complaints from housed residents and business owners about the safety of the streets, neighborhoods and parks — priorities often viewed as incompatible.

Being homeless in Tempe “is not a crime,” said Lt. Sean Still of the Tempe Police Department. Even so, Still confirmed that “urban camping,” or staying in parks, on sidewalks, or within the bounds of any other type of public property, is illegal throughout the city.

The department's Office of Community Policing has issued over 100 urban camping warnings since the River Bottom was closed, said city spokesperson Susie Steckner. That doesn't include warnings issued by other officers, which Steckner said the department doesn't track.

The encampment sweeps illustrate a tug-of-war between neighboring municipalities and a breakdown in regional coordination as the Valley’s homelessness crisis swells.

After the River Bottom was cleared, a new encampment began spreading under a bridge near 48th and Washington streets. A group of people there said they chose the spot just over the Phoenix-Tempe border because it’s outside of Tempe’s jurisdiction.

“They've told us to get out of Tempe and go to Phoenix if we don't want to be harassed,” said Jonathan Gardner of Tempe police. He lived in both the River Bottom encampment and under the bridge.

The trend of unhoused people moving from Tempe into Phoenix has implications for Phoenix, which is under intense scrutiny for how it has handled its own growing homelessness crisis.

Phoenix has been battling two competing lawsuits since 2022. One was filed by business and property owners near “The Zone,” the city’s largest homeless encampment, who say the downtown encampment is a public nuisance. The other was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which alleges the city unlawfully cited people and threw away their belongings during encampment sweeps. The U.S. Department of Justice has also been investigating the Phoenix Police Department since 2021 over several issues, including its treatment of people experiencing homelessness.