About 30 people gathered on Twelfth Avenue and Jefferson Street in Phoenix by the Human Services Campus on Sunday afternoon to protest the treatment of people living on the streets by Phoenix police.
Advocates and people experiencing homelessness walked by dozens living in tents and on sidewalks as they chanted “houseless not hopeless” and made their way to local nonprofit André House. Many wore shirts that said, “Homes Not Jails.”
Jesús Villa, a minister at Universal Life Church, said the distinction between “houseless” and “homeless” is important. “A house may not be where your heart is, and the home may be an area, land or community,” he said. He added that “houseless” is more specific to address how property, services and resources are allocated.
The protest was organized by Fund for Empowerment’s Houseless Leadership Project, which formed in 2018 as an advocacy group to educate people who are homeless on their rights, give them opportunities to speak publicly and help them obtain documentation they may have lost.
Elizabeth Venable, treasurer and founder of the organization, said some of the largest issues people who are homeless face are lack of shelters and criminalization of homelessness in Phoenix.
Three times a week, Phoenix police and a clean up crew sweep the encampments concentrated in downtown Phoenix, collect people’s personal belongings and throw them away, according to Venable and people who are homeless.
“They say they’re cleaning, but what they’re doing is they just trash the items of people,” she said, adding that police are supposed to store the items for 90 days.
In October, Phoenix City Council approved a plan requested by Mayor Kate Gallego that calls for a regional distribution of homeless shelters and resources, more affordable housing options, enhanced neighborhood encampment cleanups and more mental health services.
Elisheyah McKinley said that about a year ago, police took her personal documents such as a birth certificate, affidavit, identification and death certificates. But when she tried to ask about her documents, she said they threatened to arrest her.
“They just do whatever they want, they make up their laws as they go,” McKinley said.
McKinley is now living in temporary housing. She said she was most recently homeless for about a year — the longest she’s ever been homeless — because of losing her paperwork.
Venable and others at the protest also said police also ticket and arrest people for urban camping, obstructing the sidewalk and trespassing.
But Venable said, everyone has the right to sleep and camp in the absence of meaningful alternatives such as shelters and the right to personal property per the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. She said police actions in Phoenix are unconstitutional and violate the 4th, 8th and 14th federal amendments.
The city “needs to find a way to clean without enforcing the laws and criminal punishment that come from the urban camping ordinance. They need to find a way to incorporate the houseless community in their decision making,” Venable said.
In addition, Venable said the number of unsheltered people are greater than the number of shelters and that many people are turned away from shelters for various reasons.
“They have a lot of restrictions on time and who’s allowed to be in there, what they’re allowed to take in there,” Venable said. “They can kick you out at any moment’s notice for almost any violation, which they make up.”
Right now, there are about 450 shelter beds available in the Human Campus Services, which has asked the city to add an additional 500 beds. Neighbors are worried this will bring more people who are homeless to the area, but advocates say an expansion is necessary.
Other groups such as Brown Berets, Trans Queer Pueblo, the Poor People’s Campaign and others came in support of the protest. Advocates also distributed face masks, a face shield, toilet paper and other necessities at the protest.