A historic building across the street from the Akron Police Department that over the past decade has become an outdoor refuge for the homeless will be torn down this fall.
Men and women who live in and around the doorways of the vacant St. Bernard School building have been told they must relocate. Their blankets, sleeping bags, backpacks, tents and other gear all must be gone by Wednesday.
The Rev. Dan Reed, pastor of St. Bernard Parish, said demolition will begin next week. The building will be razed by Thanksgiving to make way for more church parking.
“It has been a goal for 10 years,” Reed said of tearing down the old brick-and-stone building, dating to 1887 and among the oldest in downtown Akron.
People who have found sanctuary in the doorways — some for days, others for much longer — reacted with frustration.
“I’ve been in this spot for a month and a half, but I used to sleep on the police station side for like seven years,” said a man who identified himself as Mark. “This is our home.”
Mark, 51, said he and a couple also living outside St. Bernard would find a place to live together in his orange tent. He said the homeless who live in the doorways at the old school feel safe being close to the police department and in full view of traffic along South Broadway.
George, 31, who along with his wife planned to move into Mark’s tent, said there have been as many as 15 people at a time living in the large doorway.
“This is like family,” he said.
Visible in the main doorway were living supplies and other scattered belongings, a person sleeping in another doorway along University Avenue and bedding at the top of a fire escape along University Avenue.
Lt. Rick Edwards, spokesman for the Akron Police Department, said that over the years, the homeless at the old school building have caused relatively few problems. He said police routinely check on those staying in the doorways for their safety.
Jonathan Bair, 64, a carpenter who said he stops by St. Bernard’s sandwich and coffee ministry often to visit with people, suggested the building not be torn down but instead be used as a homeless shelter.
“It’s a sturdy structure,” said Bair, who praised St. Bernard parishioners for all they do for people in the community.
Reed, however, said the Cleveland Catholic Diocese and its insurance company in 2009 said the school could not be occupied because the building itself was a safety hazard.
Tim Edgar, the homeless outreach supervisor at Community Support Services, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health care for persons with severe and persistent mental illnesses, said the St. Bernard homeless community was unusual in that it has been so visible.
Thousands of motorists drive past the South Broadway doorway every day. Students from the University of Akron walk by on their way to classes or to dormitories and apartments.
“I feel that many of the people we work with are seen as disposable by the community at large,” Edgar said. “It’s much easier for people to pretend the problem isn’t there, or to throw someone $1 at an off-ramp and falsely believe they are doing their part than to actually deal with the problem.
“When you realize these are actual human beings who have no desire to live this way — many of whom have been through things most people can’t even wrap their heads around — the issue gets much stickier.”
Edgar said the clients his team works with don’t want to be homeless. The reality of being homeless in Akron, particularly in the winter months, is brutal, he said. Taking care of the most basic necessities is a full-time job.
“As a community, we need to find an actual solution that doesn’t just involve moving people around, that just serves to push the issue further underground,” Edgar said. “I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that until we have all the housing resources needed, particularly permanent, supportive housing, the homeless situation in Summit County isn’t going to dissipate in any meaningful way anytime soon.”
Edgar said that because the St. Bernard location is so public, police and caseworkers were always checking in.
“They will always go somewhere,” he said of those who have been living in the doorways. “Every time someone gets put out of one place, they pop up in another place.”
Reed said in addition to asking the homeless to remove their belongings from the doorways and fire escapes at the church, people also must take their gear from what is called the “Bologna House,” the name the homeless and volunteers call the sandwich ministry inside the church’s Corbett Center.
Several people store gear in cabinets in the room where sandwiches and coffee are handed out. Reed said space is needed for other groups that use the room, including Alcoholics Anonymous.
He said the 30-year-old sandwich ministry, a hot meal program and a food bank will continue to operate at the church, but the people who have been living in the doorways must move out for their own safety.
“They can’t be there,” Reed said.
An organization called Springtime of Hope had used a few of the rooms in the building to pass out and store clothes for the needy, he said.
Along with moving utilities out, asbestos will be removed from the school building before it is torn down. Because of the extent of asbestos in the building, it will cost about $200,000 to demolish the old school, Reed said.
He said the parking lot that will replace the building will help St. Bernard’s “growing elderly population” that needs parking closer to the church.
“I told [the homeless people], ‘We will try to get you connected to Community Support Services or Haven of Rest,’ ” Reed said in offering to help those who are being displaced. Some people already have moved their belongings, he said.
“They are very resilient,” Reed said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.