A good news story from Phoenix to end a year of highs and lows

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 29, 2023
The saguaro cactus, very representative of Arizona. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Are you too hungry for good news stories as the old year winds to a close? It can hardly get better than Phoenix, Arizona, where I myself saw rampant and frightening homelessness and drug use earlier this year. Click here for a blog I wrote from Phoenix, that’s relevant to this issue.

Now, consider what’s happened.

Two months into 2023, reports started to emerge that downtown Phoenix , like many other places in the United States, was facing “an epidemic of unsheltered homelessness”. Those were the words The New York Times (NYT) used in a doleful report on the transformation of “cities across the West (of the US)”. This, it said, was on account of “a housing crisis, a mental health crisis and an opioid epidemic, all of which landed at the doorsteps of small businesses already reaching a breaking point because of the pandemic.” In Seattle, the paper said, more than 2,300 businesses had left downtown since the beginning of 2020. In Santa Monica, California, small business owners put up a banner on the main promenade to denounce their city: “Santa Monica Is NOT safe. Crime … Depravity … Outdoor mental asylum.” And in Phoenix, the NYT reported, businesses had started to hire private security firms because homelessness “had more than tripled since 2016”.

The other thing they did in Phoenix was to file a lawsuit against the city for failing to manage “a great humanitarian crisis”.

In real terms, this meant that people like Joe and Debbie Faillace, owners of a traditional long-time sandwich shop, were suddenly facing an existential crisis because their business was now at the centre of one of the largest homeless encampments in the country. This threw up huge problems for them and the couple signed on to the lawsuit against the city.

Well, thank god for American justice. In September, according to the NYT, a Maricopa County judge ordered Phoenix to clear away the tent city of more than 1,000 residents, ruling that it had become a public nuisance, a place of “lawlessness and chaos” with such high rates of crime that it violated the rights of local businesses.

The city was forced to act – and it did – and the sandwich shop is back up and running (though the owners plan to sell as they feel they can’t continue their work long-term).

Indeed, some say that the solutions found by Phoenix – three homeless shelters and working with local non-profits – are inadequate. Nearly 10,000 people are homeless in Maricopa County of which Phoenix is a part – a nearly 70 per cent increase since 2017 – so the scale of the problem is seen as unmanageable.

It’s true the numbers are dispiriting but the change that has reportedly swept Phoenix also shows that things can be different, if there is the will.

It’s a good news story in a year that often had dark moments.

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