Tempe forced hundreds of unsheltered people out of the Salt River bed. Where did they go?

By Greg Hahne
Published: Friday, January 6, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, January 6, 2023 - 1:22pm

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Crew working sign
Greg Hahne/KJZZ
A sign shows crews are working in the trees to clean garbage and maintain vegetation west of Tempe Town Lake.

Every day, some 100,000 vehicles drive a stretch of the Red Mountain Loop 202 in Tempe that abuts the Salt River, where hundreds of unhoused people used to live.

All that remained until recently were a few tents, trash and discarded items. In a city that doesn’t have a purpose-built shelter, where did the people living in the riverbed go? And what mechanisms are in place to help Tempe’s unhoused population?

The debris in the Salt riverbed was left from a pop-up community that sprouted there in recent years. By city estimates, some 200 unsheltered people had called the place home.

Elizabeth Venable is with the Phoenix-based Fund for Empowerment, a nonprofit that advocates for people living on the streets.

“It was an attractive area, it was one of the few areas where you would not receive the same level of supervision as if you were on the streets, in terms of policing. And it was also one of the areas where there could be any sort of privacy.” Venable said. 

No trespassing zone sticker
Greg Hahne/KJZZ
A ripped sticker on a post near on notifying the public that the riverbed area below is a no trespassing zone near Tempe Marketplace parking lot.

The riverbed is thick with vegetation, and the Salt River encampment was mostly shielded from public view. There were other reasons that unsheltered people found it attractive.

“You know, the encampments, they become an individual’s community and resources are shared. Safety is a big aspect. We all know that we feel safer in a group. That makes sense," said Shana Ellis. 

Ellis is the executive director of the Action Nexus on Housing and Homelessness at Arizona State University. Her program connects community organizations and government entities working to address these issues.

“People need to know who they can turn to and who they can trust. People are out on the streets because the system, whatever system it is, has failed them, and understandably their trust is broken," Ellis said. 

In late August, the city of Tempe declared the Salt River encampment had become too dangerous. Officials said the area was unsanitary and prone to flooding. Emergency personnel were being called there more often: In 2021, there were more than 70 emergency calls to the area. That's up from six in all of 2017.

The riverbed is now a no-trespassing zone.

In the weeks leading up to the designation, the city’s HOPE Outreach team was tasked with helping people living in the riverbed. Jessica Wright is Tempe’s Homeless Solutions manager. 

“We start to identify what specific resources we can connect them to, and that might look different for different people. Some folks it’s a direct connection to shelter, some folks are a little resistant to that at the beginning and we’re working with them on getting vital documents like ID’s or birth certificates," Wright said. 

Wright says the city hired its first homeless outreach specialist in 2016. There are now 11 city employees on the HOPE team. 

Trash pile
Greg Hahne/KJZZ
Empty box of Enfamil infant formula lies among trash underneath the Priest Drive bridge.

“We’ve intensified our outreach and we now have coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with more staff out doing the work. Their main goal is to get folks connected directly to shelter," Wright said. 

Wright said because Tempe doesn’t have enough shelter space within city limits, it’s had to make arrangements with shelters in other cities, which can be just as squeezed for availability.

“And right now, we have an inflow-outflow problem," Ellis said. 

Ellis said there aren’t enough shelter beds to meet demands, in part, because there’s little turnover. 

“It’s people who are currently in shelters aren’t finding housing, so those beds aren’t freeing up in order to serve additional individuals," Ellis said. 

Ellis says that the crisis will take political will to solve, but that she is starting to see it grow.

“We all know that building takes a long time, so this isn’t going to be solved overnight. But I am very hopeful that it will not be the crisis it is today, and that we won’t see so many people unsheltered," she said. 

The city of Tempe said it will continue vegetation maintenance in the riverbed and monitor the area to prevent encampments from returning. 

This story was adapted from the original Hear Arizona podcast series UnShelterednow available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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