ACLU sues Phoenix over homeless sweeps, citations

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Phoenix, seeking to halt cleanup sweeps of unhoused people’s belongings and stop police from enforcing ordinances that the lawsuit says “criminalize homelessness.”

During the sweeps, Phoenix police typically rouse unhoused individuals in the early morning hours, tell them to gather their belongings, then direct a cleanup crew to remove and destroy any remaining property, according to the lawsuit. It alleges the sweeps “criminalize, punish and scatter” people experiencing homelessness who, because of a severe shortage of affordable housing and shelter space, have nowhere else to go.

“Rather than finding real, lasting solutions to address homelessness, (Phoenix and its police department) have chosen to punish people for living outside — many who have already faced immense hardships and have no other options for shelter,” said senior staff attorney Ben Rundall in a press release.


The lawsuit is the third in a series of legal actions taken against the city over how it has handled the growing homelessness crisis. In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into whether Phoenix police unlawfully seizes or disposes of unhoused people’s belongings. And this August, residents sued the city over the effects of a large homeless encampment located near 12th Avenue and Madison Street commonly referred to as the Zone.

Earlier this year, according to the lawsuit, the city paused the controversial cleanup sweeps of that homeless encampment, which is near the Arizona Capitol complex. But the sweeps have continued elsewhere, and the city plans to restart them in the Zone in December, according to the ACLU of Arizona.

Madison Street in downtown Phoenix, where the homeless camp outside the Human Services Campus.
Madison Street in downtown Phoenix, where the homeless camp outside the Human Services Campus.

On Thursday, city spokesperson Dan Wilson said he could not speak to the lawsuit’s claims because the city had not yet been served the lawsuit. But he noted the city’s recent efforts to address the homelessness crisis, including dedicating nearly $50 million to shelters, affordable housing and mental health services and adding almost 600 new shelter beds this year. More than 760 shelter and transitional beds will become available in the next two years, Wilson said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Fund for Empowerment, a group that advocates for the rights of unsheltered people, as well as Faith Kearns and Frank Urban, who said they have lost personal belongings in the sweeps. Two law firms, Snell & Wilmer and Dickinson Wright, are working with the ACLU of Arizona on the lawsuit.

In addition to the city, former Police Chief Jeri Williams and interim Police Chief Michael Sullivan are named as defendants. Additional defendants may be added once they are identified, according to the ACLU of Arizona.

The sweeps are commonly referred to as raids by unhoused people and homelessness activists because they can happen without warning in the middle of the night.

Urban and Kearns said they have lost everything from cellphones and sleeping bags to birth certificates and medications during the sweeps.

“Sometimes they would just show up at 3 in the morning, ‘OK, you gotta get up and go,’” Urban said. “And they would be yelling it, or they would have a bullhorn.”

The lawsuit alleges that the sweeps violate the U.S. Constitution because they seize property unlawfully, amount to cruel and unusual punishment and deprive people of their property without due process.

The lawsuit also alleges that during the sweeps police issue “mass criminal citations” for unlawful camping or sleeping on public property. The ACLU of Arizona argues such citations are unconstitutional and that neighboring municipalities, such as Glendale and Tempe, have stopped enforcing similar ordinances.

In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that local governments cannot ban sleeping or camping in public if there are not enough shelter beds available for every person experiencing homelessness.

But Urban said he has been cited multiple times for crimes relating to homelessness, including for trespassing and obstructing the sidewalk.

“I think Arizona thinks they’re above the law,” he said.

Over 6,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Phoenix on Jan. 24, 2022, according to this year’s point-in-time count. Of that total, which is likely a significant undercount, more than half were unsheltered and living on the street.

Phoenix is already battling another lawsuit over how it is handling the growing homeless population. A group of Phoenix residents and business owners sued the city in August, saying the Zone homeless encampment has subjected them to violence and caused irreparable harm to their property. A hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 8.

Kearns, the ACLU lawsuit plaintiff, said she hopes it will bring about more humane solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis.

“The way the city has been doing it ... there's a better way around it,” she said. “There’s always a better way. You just have to look.”

Juliette Rihl covers housing insecurity and homelessness for The Arizona Republic. She can be reached at or on Twitter @julietterihl.

Coverage of housing insecurity on and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: ACLU sues Phoenix over homeless camp sweeps, citations