By: Erin Mo Ferber

Most Americans have spent more time at home over the past two years than ever before. At the same time, more Americans are facing housing insecurity. Having access to shelter is essential to living a dignified life. As such, safe and affordable housing is a necessity.

In Martin v. City of Boise, the Ninth Circuit held it is an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment to criminally prosecute people for sleeping outside on public property when they are unhoused, and shelters are full. [1] In Maricopa County, there are not enough shelter beds to meet the need. [2]

Blocks away from the Arizona Capitol, unhoused neighbors are flocking, and being funneled into, the “Zone.” Allegedly, the City of Phoenix has deemed the Zone public land for unhoused people to camp on.[3] In July 2021, about 250 people lived in the Zone.[4] Now, the number has grown to almost a thousand.[5]  Next to the Zone is Phoenix’s Human Services Campus with 900 shelter beds. Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender told NPR it’s still not enough.[6]

The Guardian reported that as many as 500 people experiencing homelessness in Phoenix died in the first half of 2022. [7] Not only do unhoused people face challenges from lack of shelter, but they are also targets of violence and excessive force. Currently, the Department of Justice is investigating the police department “over the excessive use of force, discriminatory policing and inappropriate treatment of homeless people, among other allegations.” [8]

In August of 2022, housed neighbors who live near the zone are suing the City of Phoenix for both exacerbating and neglecting the crisis. [9] The complaint is twofold. It alleges that the City of Phoenix is both intentionally concentrating the unhoused population into the Zone while also neglecting to enforce quality of life ordinances in and around the area (“such as prohibiting loitering, disturbing the peace, drunken and disorderly conduct, drug use, domestic violence, and obstructing streets, sidewalks, or other public grounds. Phoenix Municipal Code §§ 23-3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 28, 48, 48.01, 52(A)(3), 53, 84, 85.01.”) [10]  

Perhaps, this is an example of innovation through litigation. When officials are failing to adequately take care of the housing crisis, then housed community members leverage their power and resources to sue the City of Phoenix to act. However, the language of “homeless people as a nuisance” is problematic. To be clear, people who are unhoused are not a nuisance to society; but rather, society has failed our community by not providing adequate services and social networks. All are harmed when some are unhoused.

This not just a local problem. The UN estimates that approximately 40% of the world’s population will need access to adequate housing by 2030.[11] Currently an estimated 100 million people are experiencing homelessness worldwide.[12] In addition, 1 in 4 people live in harmful and dangerous conditions that present a threat to their health, safety, and overall prosperity. [13]

Given that this is not going away, as all people deserve the dignity and respect of being housed, it is time for us to support our unhoused community members by offering adequate services, while also addressing the root causes that lead to housing insecurity and homelessness.

[1] Martin v. City of Boise, 920 F.3d 584, 603 (9th Cir. 2019).


[3] Complaint at page 8






[9] Complaint at page 2

[10] Complaint at pages 2 – 3




Erin Mo Ferber (she/her) believes we have a responsibility to practice law in a way that promotes social equity and justice for all, especially for underrepresented and underserved communities. Erin is a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests include immigration law, criminal justice, body autonomy, and issues affecting low-income communities. Her personal interests include plant-based meals, stand-up comedy, and memoirs read by the author.