Listen to Doug Livingston's interview with Sage Lewis and Terri Heckman
When it came to helping the homeless, Frank Heckman just did.
In early December 1991, the building superintendent opened a car garage at the state-owned Oliver Ocasek Building to the homeless. He couldn’t bear another night of heating vehicles while people froze on the street in Akron.
In the next three weeks, Heckman deftly won state approval and county funding to hire security guards. Everyone from the Salvation Army to local churches got behind him. The city bent some rules that barred dozens from sleeping overnight in the garage.
On a cold and drizzly evening between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Heckman opened the garage, again. He would do so every night at 9 p.m. for the next four months. At peak capacity, an average of 150 men, women and children stayed there — praying together, eating as a group (one night by a row of headlights when the power failed) and huddling to watch the Redskins beat the Bills that Super Bowl on a 20-inch tube television Heckman borrowed from his family’s kitchen.
Next week marks the 26th anniversary of a Christmas miracle that earned Heckman the nickname “angel of the poor” in his 2004 obituary. His caring legacy lives on in his children, among them a daughter named Terri who runs the Akron Battered Women’s Shelter.
Terri Heckman sees her father in Sage Lewis, whose property across the street from the shelter is home to Second Chance Village, Akron’s unsanctioned tent city for the homeless.
“Like dad, he saw a problem and he didn’t stop to say, ‘What are the government regulations, what are the rules?’?” Terri Heckman said.
Time running out
As rivulets of melting snow trickle into tents behind the red brick building at 15 Broad St., 35 homeless people at Second Chance Village are counting on Lewis to work with the city before it gets cold again.
The city has offered both an invitation to talk and an ultimatum to get proper zoning or shut down this “non-conforming campground.”
“If Mr. Lewis declines to engage in the legal process available to him or even sit down and speak with us, I’m not sure what the city — as an entity tasked with enforcing the law — can do to help formulate a workable solution,” said Ellen Lander-Nischt, spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Horrigan. “It’s impossible to engage in a one-sided conversation. Our door is open. We have invited Mr. Lewis to sit down at the table to talk about his perspective, discuss the legal options and possible solutions, but he has not accepted.”
Lewis and Frank Heckman shared a spirit, compassion and charisma that earned the admiration of the area’s homeless and the trust of key institutions that combat homelessness with state and federal funding.
But unlike Lewis, Frank Heckman worked with city administrators. After public awareness grew and protesters who once stayed in Heckman’s emergency garage shelter were arrested, traditional shelters added beds. The city supplied funding to support the homeless. For years, they were allowed to live in a vacant building.
Today, chronic homelessness persists.
The city this year invested $100,000 in the new drop-in center for the homeless on Voris Street and received national recognition for creating enough space to house every homeless veteran. And it doled out $5 million for homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing, emergency shelters, transitional shelters and permanent supportive housing for the homeless through emergency grants and the Continuum of Care, a coalition of nonprofit agencies that Terri Heckman chairs.
But an estimated 150 chronically homeless Akron residents — for a multitude of reasons — fit nowhere but in the streets, the woods or Second Chance Village.
“Sage has made us open our eyes again,” Terri Heckman said. “There is a gap and it needs filled. People deserve something. … And I firmly believe that City Council, the mayor, [Lewis], me, the people who donate all the time, we all want to get there.”
The relationship between Lewis and the city has been strained this year as neighbors complain of trash, crime and drug use that have followed some of the homeless to Second Chance Village.
For a few days this summer, the tent city peaked at 48 residents. Those who refused to contribute or follow the rules were banished. The village has since shrunk to about 35, maintaining equilibrium between the need for shelter and the weight of mental illness, addiction and a concentration of people in survival mode.
City Planner Jason Segedy sent Lewis a letter in late November saying the tent city would be shut down if not rezoned as a campground. A week went by with no response, then Akron Zoning Manager Mike Antenucci sent an email last week to ask if Lewis would accept Segedy’s invitation to sit down and work out a legal solution.
A conditional-use application was attached to the last email. Antenucci noted the date it would need to be filed to get a public hearing on the campground in January. No response has been received.
Lewis fears that conditionally zoning parts of his commercial property for tiny homes, and perhaps the tents, might allow housing inspectors to issue code violations for a lack of heating and plumbing. He’s not ready to file for an occupancy certificate, which might be needed to let the homeless spend cold nights inside his commercial property on an emergency basis.
Akron Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples, who chairs council’s housing committee, had advised Lewis to withdraw an earlier application he submitted to build tiny homes until he comes up with a plan to provide all the necessary amenities, including restrooms, showers and a kitchen.
For that reason, Lewis turned down an offer from Dave Murray of Northwest Akron to install a tiny shelter on his Middlebury property, which doubles as office space upstairs and a day center for donations in the basement.
But Lewis is moving forward with code compliance. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church has donated cash to install a second bathroom, this one accessible to disabled people.
The work is being done by Brandon Robison, a former resident of Second Chance Village. His cousin and boss, Kenny LaTampa, does homeless outreach through Revolution Ministries Akron. LaTampa recommended the tent city to Robison when he got out of prison this year.
Near the new restroom, Second Chance Village residents have poured concrete in a back room for a kitchen. They plan to heat the area, which Lewis once thought could be used to keep his residents from freezing in winter.
“I can’t do any of that,” Lewis said. “We’re so watched. So, we’re shuttling people to Haven [of Rest] and other places.”
Give a job
Heckman, as the chair of the Continuum of Care, is hopeful that the city and Lewis will see eye to eye. But there’s a more immediate problem: too many donations, and not the right kind. Often missing from piles of bagged goods dropped off at Second Chance Village are opportunities to help these men and women find purpose.
At her battered women’s shelter, Heckman is grateful but puzzled by summer clothes donated in December. When she looks across the street at the row of cars relentlessly lined up outside Lewis’ place, she knows the villagers are up to their ears in things they can’t use.
“I try almost never to turn away donations,” said Lewis. “[But] I’m physically out of room for oak cabinets.”
The cabinets might better serve Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores for used materials. Lewis sometimes dumps female clothes in a bin behind the battered women’s shelter. Housewares go to Goodwill. He drives heavily discounted food from the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank to homeless camps in the woods and parks. His villagers regularly wash, fold and pack clothes in boxes for the Haven or Rest, whose administrators may not know that the donations came from homeless people across town.
But the donation that effectively changes lives is opportunity. Lewis knows a property owner who is paying one of his residents to gut and renovate a house. The homeless worker stays there, doubling as around-the-clock security. Heckman, too, has hired Second Chance Villagers for $10 an hour to clean out buildings and auction off surplus furniture. (She gifted the proceeds to Lewis’ Homeless Charity).
What Lewis and Heckman would like to see more of, along with innovative ideas and volunteers, are genuine requests to put homeless men and women to work shoveling sidewalks, fixing up old homes, moving furniture, detailing cars, whatever.
“I’ve got women who go to Goodwill and buy Christmas presents and they come back here so excited because they bought it. ‘No one gave me my presents this year,’” Heckman said. “People don’t understand; that’s crucial. That’s a big step that you no longer take the handout. You can provide for yourself.”
“If someone found everyone over the age of 90, she continued, “and [said] ‘we’re going to shovel their driveways.’ These [Second Chance Village] guys would jump at the opportunity.”
“I love it,” Lewis said, responding to Heckman’s suggestion. “People want to feel valued.”
To hear the full discussion between Heckman and Lewis on helping the homeless, click here.
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.