Chaos Up Close

Joe and Debbie Faillace opened a Phoenix sandwich shop called Old Station Subs 37 years ago. They planned to build the business and eventually sell it for enough money to retire. Instead, the homeless crisis in America interrupted their dreams.

The Faillaces are not homeless. But one of the largest homeless encampments in the country, with 1,100 people, appeared just a few blocks from the store. My colleague Eli Saslow spent dozens of hours with the Faillaces, their workers and customers at Old Station, which has become a front-row seat to the chaos. People from the camp often come into the restaurant, tell fantastic stories and ask for money. A bullet recently hit a nearby fence.

Confusion surrounds them, Eli reported in a story published this weekend about the Faillaces’ plight. People argue, fight, deal and use drugs, much of it outdoors. Last year the police were called an average of eight times a day within a half mile of the restaurant. Hundreds of crimes were reported, including four homicides. The remains of a 20-24 week fetus were burned and dumped in a dump in November.

Now, Debbie wants to get out of the neighborhood. But the Faillaces can’t find anyone to buy their restaurant, even though they’ve steadily reduced the price.

“The people who suffer the most in these situations are the ones now living without protection on the streets,” Eli told me. “But it is also true that the growing homeless population has had a dramatic impact on every city. It’s Joe and Debbie’s store, where just existing within that restaurant has become incredibly difficult, but so is every other business in that neighborhood.”

How did this become such a big problem? The United States builds too little affordable housing, experts say. Rising rates of poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction also play a role.

The resulting homelessness crisis has reshaped life not only in Phoenix but also in other US cities, where encampments have grown and become more common. “Lately I’m realizing we’re living in fucking hell,” Joe said. “Us, them, inside, outside. Who are you working for? When does it stop?

Read Eli’s story here: his first for The New York Times since coming from The Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of compelling narratives about US famine.

Related: “I have to do work that feels human.” Eli reflects on the time she spent reporting this story.

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