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The population at an Arizona homeless encampment swells but resources fall short

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 800 people who don't have permanent housing are now camping out near downtown Phoenix, Ariz. Residents and business owners are suing the city because of it, demanding a solution. But city officials say they don't have enough money to help. Bridget Dowd from KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jay (ph), you run across that street.

BRIDGET DOWD, BYLINE: Just a few blocks from Arizona's Capitol building, the streets are lined with shopping carts, blankets and discarded furniture. Hundreds of people have set up tents or built makeshift shelters out of crates and tarps in the area, commonly called the Zone.

TALIBAH SALAHUDDIN: We have to sleep on the ground, and some of us don't even have a cover.

DOWD: Talibah Salahuddin has found a shady spot to park a car that holds all of her personal belongings. Next to her on the curb, Codiesha Hendrix says no one should have to live like this.

CODIESHA HENDRIX: This place is raggedy - flies roaming around, cockroaches, birds everywhere.

DOWD: Unsheltered people have been sleeping in this area for years, but recently, the numbers have grown. Last July, about 250 people were camped out in this neighborhood. This summer, that number grew to more than a thousand at one point. That growth prompted local business and homeowners to file a lawsuit against the city in early August. Karl Freund is one of them. He told KJZZ's "The Show" they're concerned about trash, violence, crime and the conditions people are living in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KARL FREUND: Whatever we're doing now is not working. We've got to try something else.

DOWD: The Zone surrounds Phoenix's Human Services Campus, a nonprofit that offers a variety of resources to those experiencing homelessness.

AMY SCHWABENLENDER: We see this high number of unsheltered people living around us because they want to access all of those services, yet we can't shelter everybody.

DOWD: Amy Schwabenlender is the executive director at the campus. She says they have about 900 beds, but that's not enough, and resources are tight everywhere.

SCHWABENLENDER: We don't have enough shelter beds in all of Maricopa County, so we can't refer people to other places to go for shelter and services.

DOWD: She says the increase in unsheltered people in the area is due to a number of factors. Those include rising rents, high inflation and the expiration of the pandemic eviction moratorium.

SCHWABENLENDER: It really has pushed people out of housing that they've had. We're seeing more first-time homeless, people who've never been in this situation before, and they don't know where to go.

DOWD: Those pressures affect people beyond Phoenix. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says that rising rents and inflation are increasing the risk of homelessness across the country. The city of Phoenix said in a statement that it recognizes the challenges contributing to an increase in homelessness and pointed toward the additional funding it's put toward homelessness programs.

YASSAMIN ANSARI: The city of Phoenix over the past two years has spent an unprecedented amount of funds on homelessness.

DOWD: Phoenix City Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari oversees the district where the Zone is located. She highlighted some of the same efforts mentioned by the city.

ANSARI: Last year, we spent about 50 million and this year, with our American Rescue Plan dollars, about 70 million on new shelters, transitional housing and bridge housing. And we are still working to get those up and running.

DOWD: They've also put money toward property cleanup around the Zone. But she says even the money they've committed isn't enough to solve the problem. State and federal funding are needed, as well. If there's one thing all parties agree on, it's that as long as a lack of resources exists, the Zone will, too. For NPR News, I'm Bridget Dowd in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SADIE HARRISON AND PHILIPPA HARRISON'S "THE SOULS OF FLOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bridget Dowd