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In 'The Zone,' cold Phoenix nights often end with tents on fire

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, February 6, 2023 - 12:43pm
Updated: Tuesday, February 7, 2023 - 12:49pm

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The Zone homeless encampment winter tent fire downtown Phoenix
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Residents spot a tent fire in “the Zone” homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix on Jan. 27, 2023.

Most people don’t think of Phoenix and think about freezing temperatures. But, winter in the desert can get cold — especially at night. And when it does, the growing community of people living on the street has to find ways to stay warm.

I went to the state’s largest homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix — the area called “The Zone” — early one morning in January and saw firsthand how that can pose serious threats to their safety.

Lauren Gilger with Nette Washington Reed
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Lauren Gilger (left) with Nette Washington Reed

Captain Rob McDade at the Phoenix Fire Department said, fires like this are reported to them not every day, but often — and it’s a big concern for the department. Fire crews treat these fires like house fires, with all of the services that come with that. These are people who just lost their home, no matter what kind of home it is.

McDade said the biggest fear is that someone will be critically injured in one of these fires, and they work with people in the encampments to try to prevent that.

Nette Washington Reed is out here every morning at 4 a.m. talking to people, getting to know their stories.

She’s on the Street Outreach Team for Phoenix’s Human Services Campus — a sort of one-stop-shop for homeless services in the Valley.

Here, about 900 people can be sheltered every night. There's a soup kitchen and health care services. And around it, because of the services that are all available here, is “The Zone.”

“The Zone” is roughly 1,000 people camped out in makeshift shelters: tents draped in blankets and tarps, sleeping bags on the ground. There are bike wheels and old luggage piled up next to boxes, broken furniture, scrap wood and grills.

It’s a city of its own for those who have found themselves without a place to live — and it’s cold.

On this morning, the city of Phoenix is about to conduct a cleanup here — a controversial undertaking that has faced federal investigations and lawsuits.

Charles Gibson outside his vehicle in “the Zone” downtown Phoenix
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Charles Gibson outside his vehicle in “the Zone” homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix.

But however the area is cleaned, safety here is a real concern. From drug use to human feces, the voices of those calling for the city to act have gotten louder. Last year, “The Zone” made headlines after a dead fetus was found on fire in the middle of the road here.

And, as Nette is showing me around the area, I saw one of the most serious safety concerns in “The Zone” firsthand: A fire erupted inside a tent just a few yards in front of us.

People rushed to get farther away from the fire while two workers ran up to it with fire extinguishers. They tamped it down, but it’s not completely out.

As firefighters get the blaze under control and people slowly disperse, it becomes clear that the only person who is surprised by what we’re watching is me.

The Zone homeless encampment winter tent fire downtown Phoenix
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Fire crews put out a tent fire in “the Zone” homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix on Jan. 27, 2023.

Heather Veiga, another member of the Outreach Team, says “The Zone” averages about one of these fires every day.

Nette and Heather say they’ll work with the people who lost everything today and try to get them into housing immediately.

The cleanup will continue on this block of The Zone, erasing any remnants of this fire and what was lost.

Tents are starting to be rolled away on dollies, sanitation trucks and cleanup teams with rubber gloves on begin walking through the encampment. They have shovels and security guards.

As Heather says, it’s a typical day in “The Zone.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify where 900 people are sheltered each night.

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