The tents and campfires were gone. The sidewalks where people had built makeshift shelters from wooden pallets and blue tarps were empty. On Friday, all that was left of “the Zone,” a sprawling homeless camp in downtown Phoenix, were discarded clothes, trash and questions about what comes next.
For the first time in years, residents said the Zone felt all but empty, cleared out after an Arizona judge declared the area a “public nuisance” earlier this year and ordered Phoenix to dismantle the encampment by Saturday.
Housing advocates say the operation appears to have removed — at least temporarily — a notorious symbol of the homelessness crisis in American cities.
“It seems like some kind of sci-fi movie,” said Joel Coplin, whose home and art gallery sits in the heart of the Zone. “Overnight, they’re all gone.” He said he often woke up to flashing lights of police cars and ambulances responding to fights, shootings, fires and overdoses outside his bedroom window.
Phoenix began clearing the area in May, going block by block to persuade homeless residents to move into hotel rooms, shelter beds or other short-term housing. About 600 people have left the encampment for temporary housing, the city said, at a cost of about $20 million.
Phoenix is also opening a $13 million campsite in an empty lot nearby, with shaded tent shelters, food, bathrooms and showers with room for 300 people who do not want to — or cannot — stay inside.
“This was a monumental effort,” said Rachel Milne, the director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions. “It’s a tremendous difference.”
But housing advocates say it did little to resolve a shortage of affordable housing, mental-health care and addiction treatment fueling Arizona’s broader homelessness problem.
Phoenix’s shelters are at capacity, and homeless advocacy groups say the city still needs tens of thousands of additional low-income housing units to serve a homeless population that has grown by 70 percent, to more than 9,000, over the past six years.
“It didn’t end people’s homelessness,” said Amy Schwabenlender, chief executive of Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, to a group of organizations that serve the Zone. “It took them from an unsheltered place to a sheltered place, and that’s good. But how many more people will fall into homelessness?”
For now, Prisella Goodwin said she was happy enough to escape the tent where she had been sleeping along a stretch of asphalt known as the Jackson Curve, the final section of the Zone cleared this week.
Some in that last block had decided to leave before the cleaning crews and outreach workers showed up before dawn, wheeling overflowing shopping carts and roller bags toward parks and alleys that are not subject to the judge’s cleanup order.
But Ms. Goodwin, 66, who said she had been homeless on and off since she was 14 years old, said she was happy to accept the city’s offer to move to a hotel 30 minutes north of downtown.
“I hope this is going to open a door,” she said, as she sat in the breakfast room of her hotel.
City officials say roughly 80 percent of the people living in the Zone had accepted the offers of temporary housing over the past five months. Ms. Milne, of the Office of Homeless Solutions, said most of them were still sheltered but said some have returned to the streets.
“The city is not doing any sort of victory lap,” Ms. Milne said. “Some additional real work has to begin.”
The encampment sprouted up in a neighborhood where Phoenix’s largest homeless shelters and homeless-aid organizations are clustered, where hundreds of people still sleep, eat and get medical care, mail service and help applying for jobs, housing or identification cards.
On Friday afternoon, a few dozen people seeking a break from the 85-degree afternoon sun crouched on sidewalks beside new signs saying, “This area is closed to camping.”
“It’s dramatically better,” said Joe Faillace, the owner of Old Station Subs Shop and one of several local business owners and residents who sued Phoenix, arguing that the city had allowed the Zone to metastasize into a crime-ridden nightmare by not enforcing rules against loitering, drug use and camping.
Still, several homeless people said the cleanup had gone beyond clearing away the tents and tarps. With the area cleared, they said the police were no longer allowing them to sit or stand on the sidewalks.
A 46-year-old man who gave his name as BJ said he had moved off the streets and into a shelter bed, but said the fenced-off campus got claustrophobic and chaotic after a while, and he sometimes needed to leave.
“They say we don’t have no rights to walk around here anymore,” he said.
As he and three friends stood on the corner, a police cruiser rolled past them.
“No more hanging out here,” an officer said through a loudspeaker. “You’ve got to move along.”
David Iversen contributed reporting.