On a frigid Friday evening last month, the face of homelessness could be seen in the shadows under the All-America Bridge in Akron.
More than 70 homeless men and women received food, clothing and personal gear, including sleeping bags and tarps, from more than 20 volunteers representing various local organizations.
“We are thankful for these places,” said a 54-year-old Marine veteran who said he lives in a camp near downtown with a few other homeless men.
But not everyone is pleased that the homeless congregate in Akron’s Northside area on Friday nights — a busy time for nearby bars and restaurants — or Saturday mornings. And as winter and the holiday season approach, the issue of the homeless around downtown Akron is taking on more urgency.
Some of the homeless already have been moved from their makeshift homes in the doorways at the old St. Bernard’s School on South Broadway, as the building is set for demolition this month. Others live in the front doorway entrance of the now-shuttered High Street Christian Church on South High Street — a mere two blocks from City Hall.
Akron Deputy Director of Public Service Phillip Montgomery said that in response to concerns from Northside business owners and the Downtown Akron Partnership, the city found a new location for the distribution of food, clothing and gear to those in need.
Terrence Dalton, president and chief executive officer of Community Support Services, said that the people who have been gathering under the Y-Bridge will begin meeting soon in one of two CSS-owned buildings: at 111 E. Voris St., where the Department of Veterans Affairs Community Resource and Referral Center is now located; or at 640 Wolf Ledges, where CSS Homeless Outreach is headquartered.
The hope, Dalton said, is to provide a “one-stop” center for homeless services.
Montgomery said the groups that have been operating under the bridge have agreed to the move and it “allows these charities to continue to do their mission in a location that makes sense” for all parties involved.
Also moving to a new CSS location soon will be Family Promise of Summit County, a nonprofit that serves homeless families. That organization, which had been located in the former parsonage of the Miller Avenue United Church of Christ on Miller Avenue in South Akron, will move to the Voris Street location, Executive Director Jeff Wilhite said.
“The homeless need to be heard,” said Karen McNeill, executive director of Springtime of Hope, a nonprofit group that provides transitional housing to men and women at five sites. Group volunteers pass out food and gear under the Y-Bridge.
Recently, McNeill and some of the men who receive help from her organization complained about a city of Akron sweep through a campsite in a wooded area on the north end of downtown. They said police removed several tents and the gear inside them.
“We got nothing back,” said a man named Wayne, whose sleeping bag, tarp and tent were supplied by Springtime of Hope. He said his VA papers and other items, including an American flag, were taken down in the sweep that came without warning.
City spokeswoman Stephanie York said campers were trespassing and living on private property when the tents and gear were removed. She said all were given plenty of advance notice that they had to leave.
“They can’t stay on private property,” York said.
Items taken in the sweep were thrown away, city officials said.
The Friday night and Saturday morning distributions to the homeless under the Y-Bridge have been going on for a few years.
This summer, after hearing from Northside business owners who were concerned that the people who show up on Friday evenings were taking up parking spaces, officials held a meeting with the nonprofit groups that were providing aid.
Suzie Graham, president of Downtown Akron Partnership, said there were concerns that people who drive into downtown Akron for dinner or entertainment on Friday night could be intimidated by the crowd that gathers between 6 and 7 p.m., just a block or so from the busy district.
Acknowledging that homelessness is a “tough” issue because of its complexities, she said it seemed there might be a better location to pass out food and camping gear than so close to the business district.
“We know [patrons] have turned around and gone the other way” after being asked by the homeless for money, Graham said.
On the other hand, she knows that many people want to help those who are less fortunate.
“People have generosity in their hearts and they want to minister,” Graham said.
McNeill complained that donors to her organization give money to help the homeless only to see the tents and other gear thrown away during police sweeps through campsites.
“We were told by somebody in the city that we ‘enable the homeless,’ ” McNeill said. “If enabling means that we love, care for and provide for their needs, then yes, we enable and will continue to do so. ... We are God’s Army — his hands and his heart to reach out to those in need.”
York said that though the group means well, “they are almost enabling. We take the tents down after we give them notice ... [The homeless] know they can go to Springtime of Hope and get another tent. They are OK with abandoning it because they can get another.”
Trek for assistance
Joe May, founder of the Peter Maurin Center that is affiliated with the Catholic Worker of Akron, said he and the center agree that moving from Northside is needed, but a survey of those served on Saturdays found that two-thirds would have a hard time making the 2.2-mile distance from the bridge to the CSS location.
“We want to continue to give food where it’s needed,” May said.
On Saturday mornings, his group gives out food and gear, including tents from Springtime of Hope, to the homeless from the Y-Bridge location. Another group, called Grace Affirming Ministries, started passing out items for the homeless this fall as well on Saturday mornings.
What motivates May and others to do what they do, he said, comes directly from the Bible.
“It’s Matthew 25 — ‘whatsoever you do to the least you do to me,’ ” said May, 77, a retired human resources and labor relations executive.
May said the various groups that are expected to begin using one of the CSS sites this month plan to tour the locations today with city officials.
The old High Street Christian Church, whose roots go back to 1829 in Akron, vacated the downtown building when the congregation moved to Green in 2012 (and renamed the church Harmony Springs Christian Church). The current building was erected in 1977 to replace the 1892 building that fire damaged in 1975.
The building is expected to be torn down as part of a proposed $40 million hotel complex that would include the nearby Greystone Hall.
Sleeping bags and personal items cover the ground at the former front entrance to High Street Christian Church.
Pastor Joel Engman said Harmony Springs Christian Church leaders are aware of the presence of homeless at the High Street entrance and have asked Akron police to check on their well-being periodically — like police did for those who had been living in doorways around St. Bernard.
“We are not worried about their presence at the High Street entrance, as we have allowed many homeless to use our property, including the parking garage space, for years,” Engman said.
Those living there are greeted with the inscription: A Household of God — Ephesians 2:19.
That Bible verse reads, in part: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.