(OSV News) — Catholic ministries in Phoenix are reaching out to bring material and spiritual aid to residents of a massive — and controversial — encampment just blocks from the Arizona Capitol.
An estimated 700-800 individuals are now living in what has been dubbed “The Zone,” a sprawl of tents and makeshift shelters surrounding the city-owned exterior of the Human Services Campus. Founded in 2005, the HSC complex contains 16 independent, nonprofit organizations that collectively provide a range of support to alleviate homelessness and poverty, including food assistance, clothing, medical and dental care, mental health services and temporary housing.
But HSC’s 900 shelter beds have been filled “for a long time,” with demand spiking particularly since December 2021, HSC spokesperson Steve Carr told OSV News, adding that shelters throughout the greater Phoenix area also are at capacity.
Concerns have arisen over drug usage, violence, litter and human waste connected with the encampment. Area residents and business owners filed a lawsuit against the city in August 2022, claiming the Zone is a public nuisance.
On March 27, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney ordered the removal of the Zone’s tents, shelters, waste and drug paraphernalia, as well as “individuals committing offenses against the public order.” The ruling comes ahead of the July start date for the trial.
A number of area Catholic ministry leaders told OSV News the growth of the Zone is down to several factors, including a lack of affordable housing, a rise in evictions, low wages, addiction and mental illness.
“It’s really across the board,” said Jessica Berg, chief program officer of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Arizona, which operates a dining room and an urban farm at the HSC.
In particular, Berg noted the “housing crisis has skyrocketed” since the pandemic.
“We used to get people into an apartment for $500 to $700 a month,” she said. “Now, the lowest rate is about $1,200 for a one-bedroom or studio apartment. We have plenty of people staying in shelters who are working full time at minimum wage jobs.”
Berg said she calculated that such individuals would need to work “70 hours per week” to afford current apartment rental rates in Phoenix.
Another contributing factor is mental illness, said Cindy Moraga, secretary of Our Lady of Fatima Parish Mission in Phoenix, which has assisted a number of individuals experiencing homelessness by connecting them with experts.
“A lot of time we’ll get somebody on their feet, and they’ll look wonderful, they’re coming back to church, they’re becoming parishioners,” she told OSV News. “And then we’ll hear they’re back on the streets. There’s a deeper underlying need (at issue).”
Amid the controversy and litigation over the Zone, staff at local Catholic outreaches are simply trying to meet the basic needs of encampment residents — and finding hope in the process, said John Delaney II, executive director of the André House of Hospitality, across the street from the HSC.
Named for St. André Bessette, the ministry traces its origins to an effort begun in 1984 by two priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who settled in Phoenix to serve the community in the tradition of both the order and the Catholic Worker Movement. Delaney told OSV News André House, a nonprofit owned by the Holy Cross congregation, serves dinner six nights a week to 500-700 guests. In addition, the organization’s offshoot ministry, St. Joseph the Worker, provides employment assistance.
Those initiatives are all part of the André House mission to “make God known, loved and served,” said Delaney. “And we do that by journeying with the most vulnerable among us. We welcome everybody who comes to our door, with love and respect. We view all of them as (bearing) the image and likeness of God.”
Delaney said that focus enables him to view the Zone through a unique lens, one that offers an unexpected view.
“The secular society tries to talk about this area as ‘The Zone,’ and I don’t like the term,” he said. “There’s so much more than that label conveys. I think this is a place of hope. Even though people are downcast, you can experience God here. You can see people sharing with each other the little food they have; they’ll share with their neighbor in the next tent.”
Missionaries of Charity Sister Nisha Maria told OSV News she and her five fellow sisters, based in a convent next door to Our Lady of Fatima, simply seek “to share God’s love” with those they visit on the street.
“We take some sandwiches, some drinks, some muffins and share them with the people,” she said. “We pray with them. The sandwich is only the means; we take that along, but we share God’s love with them.”
The sisters also operate a small shelter that offers 23 beds, allowing women, men and children a month’s stay, said Sister Nisha.
“They receive so much love — God’s love,” she said. “Many of them come back to church.”
Along with residents of the Zone, the sisters seek out individuals tucked away in other corners of the city, she said.
“We listen to them,” said Sister Nisha. “It’s a beautiful experience: they cry, they share with us, and it’s very beautiful to hear their stories. We cannot help them so much, but we pray with them, and we bring them all into faith in Jesus.
“We cannot reject them. We are here to be with them as a sister, as a friend to them.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.